“Poets drown in lakes”: Bob Dylan in his own words on whether he considers himself a poet or a songwriter.
MAY 24, 2021. Today is the 80th birthday of Bob Dylan. With love and gratitude to the man behind every Bob Dylan song, we mark this milestone with a series of tributes and reflections on the songwriter and his songs from us, as well as great songwriters and music folks who have contributed their reflections for our Dylan week.
Bob Dylan was born 80 years ago today at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, 1941. Hibbing, MN was his home-town, and where he ushered in the jingle-jangle mornings for two decades. It was then he went East all the way to Morristown, New Jersey, to commune with Woody Guthrie. He was just in time to tell the world that the times were changing by creating a new kind of popular song: one with the melodic and structural charms of beloved songs of the past, but with a signicant shift: the lyrics transcended all previous notions of what songs can do. Though linked always with popular entertainment, he knew songs could do more, and he proved it. He affirmed the crucial truth: it is not the song itself that presents limitations, it’s the songwriter, and his perceptions of how much a song can hold.
Dylan always recognized the unchained potential of songs. His genius has been exemplified through his career not for exploding the popular song to invent a new kind of song, but in discovering the unbound potential of this ancient form. And he did it so beautifully, wedding the substance and consciousness he found in Woody Guthrie’s folk music with the visceral versified authenticy of the blues, the country heartsongs of Hank Williams, with the beautiful craft of the American Songbook standards. Instead of dismissing those traditional elements of song craft and poetry to invent a new kind of free verse song, as did modern poetry by abandoning rhyme and meter and other arcane literary practices from previous centuries, he embraced them.
Rather than simplify or diminish rhyme in song, he added more – using the interlocking abab rhyme schemes of romantic poetry to form perfect quatrains with extra interior strength. Normally, only the second and fourth line rhymes. But in Dylan’s songs, the first and third lines also rhyme. To do this at all and sustain it in a song is not easy. But to do it as he does, folding all that craft together yet in a way which seems organic and unforced takes more than talent. It takes genius. And a genuine love of songwriting, and the unique joy of building these perfectly constructed vessels of inspiration and letting them loose into the culture, the bloodstream of the people.
Always he brought an old world dignity and beauty to his language (which he called “gallantry” in our interview, a word and concept rarely used in this century) and a beautiful, heartfelt gift for melody. Although, like Leonard Cohen, the dimensional brilliance of his lyrics is so staggering, the beauty and power of his music is overshadowed. Yet without the music, none of his songs would matter. Because the man wasn’t writing his masterpieces to be read. He wrote them to be sung, and to be heard. To be heard propelled by this poignant, timeless dynamic of fusing words and music into a song . To be delivered as songs have been delivered through the ages, sung from the source itself, the heart and soul of a fellow human. The words speak to our minds. With music they speak to our hearts, and our souls.
To this age-old tradition he famously went electric – as did all our old cities with the advent of modern times – forever forging a future for songwriting without abandoing the past. In his work was always the message that technological advances doen’t always advance humanity, and maybe have the opposite effect.
Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don’t change soon, he will
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon
From “License to Kill”
By Bob Dylan
Yes, he’s played the part of the song & dance man often, the Jokerman, the ragged tambourine clown in time. It’s an easy and funny role for him to play, forever standing in the old world and the new, bringing us forward without severing all the beauty we’ve accumulated through the centuries. To be a song and dance man, an Al Jolson, and also a popular songwriter, is not an easy equation for any life. He’s pulled it off. But often the fullness of what he’s done is distorted in an attempt to categorize him.
From the very start, Dylan was often distinguished by critics as being greater than a great songwriter. Dylan, it was often written , is more than a songwriter; he’s a poet. Of course, the intention was to elevate him above the others. But it implies writing poetry is a higher calling than songwriting. It is not. It is connected, but separate. But songs have a powerful element that poems do not. Music. And the magic and mandate of matching music, and the potent poignancy of melody, with words, is a journey unlike any other.
Still, even his fellow songwriters, such as Van Morrison, persist in seeing him as a poet. And not any average, pedestrian poet, but , in the words of Van the Man, the world’s greatest living poet.
But how does Dylan see it? Does he think of himself as a poet? A songwriter? Or something else?
In my 1991 interview with Dylan, he delivered this beautifully serious, funny treatise on what constitutes a genuine poet in these modern times. It’s a good starting point for our Dylan at 80 tribute.
Van Morrison said that you are our greatest living poet. Do you think of yourself in those terms?
BOB DYLAN: [Pause] Sometimes. It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication.
Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage.
Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau, or whatever.
Poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and… and usually they know why they’re poets! [Laughs]
The world don’t need any more poems, it’s got Shakespeare. There’s enough of everything. You name it, there’s enough of it. There was too much of it with electricity , maybe, some people said that. Some people said the lightbulb was going too far.
Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code. [Pause]
And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings. Look at Keats’ life. Look at Jim Morrison , if you want to call him a poet. Look at him. Although some people say that he is really in the Andes.
Do you think so?
Well, it never crossed my mind to think one way or the other about it, but you do hear that talk. Piggyback in the Andes. Riding a donkey.
People have a hard time believing that Shakespeare really wrote all of his work because there is so much of it–
People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.
Might they think that of you, years from now, that no one man could have produced so much incredible work?
They could. They could look back and think nobody produced it. [Softly]
It’s not to anybody’s best interest to think about how they will be perceived tomorrow. It hurts you in the long run.
Behind The Song, “Blowing In The Wind,” Part 1.
Behind the Song “Blowing in the Wind,” Part 2.
Bob Dylan, The Interview, Part 1.
Behind the Song “I’d Have You Anytime” by Dylan and George Harrison
Dylan Shares His Love of Favorite Musical Keys
Where is Bob Dylan?
Dylan Sings ‘Hallelujah and the Praises of Leonard Cohen
Bob Dylan’s 80th: Joe Henry on Dylan