I see that Bob Dylan is included in the new Oxford Book of American Poetry
. I am ambivalent about this: I am always delighted when his work is exposed to a new audience, but I don't believe that Dylan is a poet. He is a songwriter and singer whose lyrics, for the most part, lie dormant on the page until his voice breathes, sneers, howls, rasps life into them.
Above most other singer/songwriters, Dylan is praised for being a poet and criticised for his vocal shortcomings. In a recent programme on Irish radio, for instance, one fan declared that his hero was "the greatest poet since Shakespeare" but who "unfortunately hasn't a great voice". I dislike the constant comparisons to poets and poetry because they imply an acceptance that poetry is a superior art; one to which all serious songwriters should aspire. Why should they? The same applies to prose and film: Why should they be praised for being 'poetic'. Even architecture and sport. How often do we hear that old warhorse 'poetry in motion' paraded into action? (The Victorian critic Walter Pater, incidentally, maintained that all art aspires towards the condition of music. Now, there's a man after my own heart.) If I hear another "Well, I don't really like Bob Dylan, but his songs are so poetic", I swear I'll... I'll think of something.
In 2003, Christopher Ricks, Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, published Dylan's Visions of Sin,
massive tome whose analysis to my mind, is based on a single spurious premise: Dylan's lyrics are worthy of academic scrutiny because they compare favourably with poetry, that comparing them to poetry confers some sort of artistic validation. Remember the old Keats versus Dylan nonsense? Bob Dylan needs no such validation.
It goes without saying that Dylan is enormously influential as a lyricist but I believe that it as a singer of his own songs that makes him truly great. He has, quite simply, re-defined the notion of what makes a singer great. Technical excellence, bel canto beauty, an ability to sing and maintain a unit-shifting smile: Dylan has none of these. But what he has is a protean, expressive way of singing that conveys a huge gamut of emotions and, apologies to the ghost of Johnny Cash, conjures up forty shades of nuance. When on form, his singing, the way he hits a line, a word, a single syllable even, goes straight to my soul. I don't think of the lyric he's singing, much less its meaning. All I feel is that shiver up the spine, that involuntary shudder, that rush of emotion that connects me with something I find difficult to explain.... All I know is that I am freed of the tyranny of meaning, the tyranny of time and place, the tyranny of myself, and taken somewhere else....
Having said all that, I sometimes enjoy reading his lyrics because I am one of the lucky people who have heard all his albums, hundreds of bootlegs and numerous live performances. And, above all else, it is this last valuable experience that I am able to bring to the printed word. I can read, say, It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
and my memory, as it were, provides the soundtrack. And the more performances I have heard, the more enriching I find the reading experience. Today I might be struck by the anger I have heard in that lyric; tomorrow the resignation, another day the compassion....
You can argue, of course, that, in the long run, it doesn't matter a damn what we call Bob Dylan; that all I'm doing here is quibbling over nomenclature. But I think it does matter. Calling him a poet narrows his achievement and consigns him to a minority-interest corner of the arts; a niche that may enjoy greater status than songwriting but one that, to my ears, achieves very little of the resonance, the sheer extraordinary power that great singing can produce.