Bob Dylan, Bristol 1966 by brizzle born and bred, under a Creative Commons licence
Some questions are old because they refuse to die. We are heading towards a half century of argument over Bob Dylan’s status, if any, as a poet. Not only is the jury still out, it seems to have fled the building, brawling each step of the way.
Some people can’t see the problem. John Berryman, for one, said that 'of course' Dylan was a poet (and an abomination). Allen Ginsberg, first of the literary groupies, was brought to tears by the verses and the possibilities of 'A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall'.
Robert Lowell meanwhile judged – with no possibility of appeal – that Dylan, an 'alloy', could manage lines of poetry, but not entire poems. The singer also required the 'crutch' of his guitar, said a poet leaning on a pen. Why the use of an instrument counted as a criterion was not explained.
Others have been less forgiving. Poor Johnny Keats, that Cockney rebel, has been dragged into the ring time and again by the likes of A.S. Byatt (in the oracular mode) to swat Dylan away. Keats himself has been unavailable for comment, sadly, but the dismissal has become commonplace. Great songwriter, but no poet. Then the non-aligned observer nurses his question: and the difference is, exactly?
This is not an argument, for it is well worn, about the status of song. It is a simple challenge. If you reject this writer as a poet, you had better be ready, please, to tell me what counts as poetry.
Dylan, it has to be said, didn’t help his cause – not that he cared – back in the days when he was hammering 'spontaneously' at a portable typewriter and dropping in on the aged, mystified Carl Sandburg with the announcement 'I am Robert Dylan and I am a poet'. What Bob called poems, the printed kind, were mostly disasters. None received the craft and attention he put into songs. The fact did not diminish those songs.
Writing about all of this, I reached a couple of rough conclusions. First, it seemed to me that the 'problem' of Dylan and poetry was poetry’s problem. It stands as a difficulty, in other words, for those who claim to define the form, even by a process of elimination, in an age that has witnessed the collapse of formalism.
Second, I thought I could see and hear something inherent to recent American verse in Dylan’s performances of the words. It struck me that there is a line of descent from the 'stepped triadic' of William Carlos Williams, to Ginsberg’s 'breath unit', to 'Like a Rolling Stone'. There is an identifiable tradition at work, in other words, one founded ultimately in American speech.
How do you arrive at a major literary artist, one who in no sense compares with the standard songwriter, one who employs the strategies, allusiveness and metaphorical density of poetry, yet who isn’t – cannot be? – a poet? As I say, the arbiters of verse have a problem, not least in the era of 'open form'. The name of the problem is Bob Dylan.
Ian Bell’s Once Upon a Time: the Lives of Bob Dylan (Volume One) is published by Mainstream.