Poetry today, what role can it play? In the film Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s latest meditation on marginal Americana, a young bus driver who shares a last name with his New Jersey hometown, writes poetry with a sandwich in hand at lunch-time. The film runs counter to everything in mainstream culture: Paterson has no desire for others to read his poetry; his bookshelf is loaded with culture heroes of the ’50s and ’60s – Frank O’Hara and William Carlos Williams. Poetry functions for him like breath. He grabs it when he can, savours it, then forgets about it when daily life intervenes.
The biggest, maybe the strangest book of poetry on offer this season is Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961-2012. Dylan’s published work reaches back to when John F. Kennedy was president, Khrushchev was setting up rockets in Cuba, and rock and roll was brand new.
The lyrics to Dylan’s first songs appeared when he was in his early 20s. They inhabit a political and cultural world when the civil rights fight was not won by any measure, and New York City – Dylan’s adopted home – was a setting full of hard-edged surprises. Woody Guthrie, among the things that brought Dylan east from the north country of Minnesota, was ensconced, dying in a New Jersey sanatorium. “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie,” Dylan writes, “I wrote you a song.”
You would not know from reading these early lyrics that their writer was the son of a conventional Jewish couple from Hibbing, his father a proprietor of a furniture and appliance store. Although Dylan’s love for the iron ore country he came from is clear in Girl of the North Country, a lyric from his second album:
Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair/ Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline/Remember me to the one who lives there/She once was a true love of mine
This is an early Dylanesque rendering of the English ballads that have influenced him throughout his career. The most recent masterpiece in this mode is the long story ballad from 1997 called Highlands with its intimations of Robert Burns:
Well my heart’s in the Highlands, gentle and fair/Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air/Bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow/Well my heart’s in the Highlands/I’m gonna go there when I feel good enough to go
Highlands is among Dylan’s most overtly allusive lyrics, mixing his own voice and personal material with the poetic tradition of troubadours and balladeers. It’s also a lyric of life’s later stages. The “party’s over,” Dylan tells us, “and there’s less and less to say.”
But there are numerous other traditions that influence and are reworked in Bob Dylan: The Lyrics. This varied set of influences makes Dylan’s work full of surprises. There is prophecy, of the biblical variety, in A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall:
Oh, what did you hear my blue eyed son?/ And what did you hear, my darling young one?/ I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’ . . .
There are a surprising number of murder ballads, a mode with a rich tradition in American folk and blues. Dylan’s take on these is often a meditation on class, or on the ongoing disaster of race in America. In The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll a rich young landowner with “600 hundred acres” kills his maid with “a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.” And then there are the more famous paeans to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, young black men killed by southern white lynch mobs.
There are poetic tales, told in six, eight, 10 and more verses, replete with memorable characters, finely drawn atmosphere and setting, and the feeling that a whole world inhabits the lyrics’ drama. Here is how the story begins in Tangled Up in Blue:
Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin/ I was layin’ in bed/ Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all/ If her hair was still red/Her folks they said our lives together/ Sure was gonna be rough/ They never did like Mama’s homemade dress/ Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And there is plenty of musing on religious themes, which irrupt at times in the language of prayer:
I see my light come shining/ From the west unto the east/ Any day now, any day now/ I shall be released
Alternately, Dylan employs the language of vision:
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine/ Alive as you or me/ Tearing through these quarters/ In the utmost misery/ With a blanket underneath his arm/ And a coat of solid gold/ Searching for the very souls/ Whom already have been sold
Dylan’s language is almost always plainspoken. His tone welcomes a hint of irony. He likes repetition, just as the southern bluesmen did. He is funny. And of course, sometimes he is just trafficking in the rock ‘n’ roll witticisms of such youthful heroes as Chuck Berry:
Well you’re comin’ down High Street, walkin’ in the sun/ You make the dead man rise and holler she’s the one/ Jolene, Jolene/ Baby, I am the king and you’re the queen
It doesn’t matter if you call the contents of Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961-2012 poetry or lyrics. Reading them leads to a consideration of what poetry might mean to us now. What do we uncover in stanza; in phrase; in the inescapable character of a particular voice. Here is one of the more recent openings in the collection, to a long mythic poem called Scarlet Town:
In Scarlet Town where I was born/ There’s ivy leaf and silver thorn/ The street have names you can’t pronounce/ Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce
Beautiful and strange, like Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. An alternative world to our own.