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Poetry editor Arthur Nelson assesses the words of Bob Dylan

I confess for my sins that I spent last night relaxing in front of what I regard as television at its best: undemanding pap for weary brain cells.

Halfway through ‘STRICTLY COME DANCING’ on BBC1 – for yes, that is one programme I watched – presenter Claudia Winkleman introduced a musical interlude by guest artistes The Tenors.

These were four tuxedo-dressed young men, presumably talented vocalists, in front of whom a pair of professional dancers then went through a sinuous routine for the delectation of the appreciative studio audience.

At this stage, my brain was surely on automatic pilot for several reasons. I say that because it took more than a minute before it gradually dawned upon me that the ditty being sung was ‘FOREVER YOUNG’, originally composed and sung by Bob Dylan and issued on the ‘PLANET WAVES’ album released in 1975.

My mind instantly went back to a holiday break in New York in September 1978, during which I watched the American television coverage of Muhammad Ali regaining his world heavyweight boxing title in a return bout with the young and limited Leon Spinks.

The world did not know it then, but Ali was probably already into his Parkinson’s descent. Therefore it was a sad irony, in the latter stages of the fight – by when it had become apparent that, barring accidents, Ali was likely to emerge victorious – the boxing commentator decided to give the hyperbole button a tweak or two.

cosell“In the words of America’s greatest poet,” intoned the legendary Howard Cosell (for it was he) as the action continued through the fourteenth of fifteen rounds:

May your hands always be busy/May your feet always be swift/May you have a strong foundation/When the winds of changes shift/May your heart always be joyful/And may your song always be sung/May you stay forever young’.”

In those days I was still young enough to regard those over the age of forty with something close to suspicion. As a result, Cosell’s description of Bob Dylan as America’s greatest poet was doubly surprising, in the sense that I hadn’t anticipated that Cosell would even have heard of Dylan.

Last night, however – as I beheld the rather insipid Tenors’ performance of ‘FOREVER YOUNG’ – the experience did prompt me to consider the question of whether or not, and in what circumstances, song lyrics can be considered to be poetry.

In doing this, it occurred to me that Bob Dylan was a good example with which to begin. I’m no Dylan-ologist – I admire him as an artiste more than I know and love his songs – but it cannot be denied that he is a fine and thought-provoking wordsmith. I believe the man himself was once quoted to the effect that he just writes words, and some of them he can put a tune to … but that’s about the sum of it.

But do – can – Dylan’s lyrics stand as poetry?

Take these lines, for example.:

You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal . . .

For anyone of my vintage, they are instantly recognisable as ‘LIKE A ROLLING STONE’ from his 1965 album ‘HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED’.

Are they poetry? I guess it’s possible, but once they’ve been heard in the context of a memorable tune, it is difficult to consider them in any other.

Taking away the music, might these words have been worthy of being read or spouted, simply on merit?

I only pose the question.

dylan2For me, Dylan is at his best when dealing with the mental pain, particularly with regard to relationships. When things have gone wrong, and you are feeling low – this is high praise from where I’m sitting – it just seems that he can articulate the hurt better than you can.

Here are the lyrics to ‘YOU’RE GONNA MAKE ME LONESOME WHEN YOU GO’ from the classic 1975 Dylan album ‘BLOOD ON THE TRACKS’ about his marriage breakdown. I quote them in full because, for me, they never fail to prompt deep regrets, just because of personal situation I was in when first I heard them:

‘I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow
Been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin’s not right it’s wrong
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Purple clover, Queen Anne’s Lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever and never realize the time

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

I’ll look for you in old Honolulu
San Francisco, Ashtabula
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.’

Lastly, I include here the lyrics to Dylan’s ‘NOT DARK YET’, another ‘personal favourite’ of mine because of what was happening in my life, from his late period return to form on the ‘TIME OUT OF MIND’ album (1997):

‘Shadows are fallin’
And I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep
And time is runnin’ away

Feel like my soul has
Turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars
That the sun didn’t heal

There’s not even room
Enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet
But it’s gettin’ there

Well my sense of humanity
Is goin’ down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing
There’s been some kind of pain

She wrote me a letter
And she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’
What was in her mind

I just don’t see
Why I should even care
It’s not dark yet
But it’s gettin’ there

And I’ve been to London
And I’ve been to gay Paris
I’ve followed the river
And I’ve got to the sea

I’ve been down on the bottom
Of a whirlpool of lies
I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’
In anyone’s eyes

Sometimes my burden
Is more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet
But it’s gettin’ there

I was born here and I’ll die here
Against my will
I know it looks like I’m movin’
But I’m standin’ still

Every nerve in my body
Is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was
I came here to get away from

Don’t even hear
The murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet
But it’s gettin’ there.’

Listen here if you so desire (YOUTUBE) – NOT DARK YET

dylan3These words feel as though they have been reluctantly hewn with great effort from dark, solid rock. But it is more than that.

At the time of recording ‘TIME OUT OF MIND’, Dylan was fifty-six years old and sounded at least ten years older – world-weary would sum his voice up perfectly.

For a few years previously, pundits and public alike had been describing it as ‘shot’. Whether or not that was true, on this album his croaky vocals added a new dimension to the meaning and nuances in his lyrics.

Poetry? Lyrics? At the end of the day it is all down to what moves you and what makes you think about the human condition.

Music can move you. So can words. Sometimes the use of one in conjunction with the other can enhance the whole, and the effect of both.

I guess it’s all in the performance.


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About Arthur Nelson

Looking forward to his retirement in 2015, Arthur has written poetry since childhood and regularly takes part in poetry workshops and ‘open mike’ evenings. More Posts