Last year Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ Whilst I can appreciate the splendor and immediacy of his lyrics, and the gruff poetic beauty of his rolling voice, I don’ think he is a poet and or that his songs should be considered poetry, at least not in terms of poetry written for the page and for private contemplation.
This probably sounds a bit dismissive of Dylan’s craft and shows a lack of respect and appreciation for all he has done for music over the past few decades. I can already hear the knives sharpening from those who believe that Dylan is a poet, which would only intensify were I to question the credentials of artists like Morrissey, Nick Cave or Jarvis Cocker who are also commonly referred to as poets.
The art of these writers is without question; their contribution to culture undeniable. To say the likes of Bob Dylan are not poets is not, though, to denigrate their achievements or to call into question their artistry, but to recognise the difference between song lyrics and poetry. Many of their lyrics are clearly poetic, but they are not really poetry.
Poet Glenn Maxwell has a simple exercise to make it clear how poetry is fundamentally different to song lyrics. It involves writing out the lyrics of your most cherished song and then reading them bare – just the words on the page. In every instance the effect is striking. As Maxwell observes, ‘if you strip the music off it it dies in the whiteness, can’t breathe there. Without the music there is nothing to mark time, to act for time.’ Great songs need music; great poems do not – they generate their own.
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
‘Masters Of War’ – Bob Dylan (1963)
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you
‘Positively 4th Street’ – Bob Dylan (1965)
This matters to how we approach the teaching of poetry. I’ve often seen students led into poetry through the medium of song. The implication is that poetry cannot be enjoyed on its own terms, only by being brought into the orbit of something more familiar. Nothing wrong with making things relevant, I hear you cry. Well, yes, sometimes. The problem here is the message it sends out about the status of poetry – that it’s just like songs – and the misconceptions about meter it creates further down the line.
Chief among these approaches is the use of rap music. Many a lesson I’ve witnessed with Eminem or Dre used to inspire students to study poetry. Aside from the perennial danger of trying to be down with the kids – it never works – there is the danger of misleading students about the nature of poetry, and setting up problems when we want to turn to the technical nitty-gritty of rhythm and rhyme.
If song lyrics get lost in the white wilderness , then rap lyrics disappear altogether – all the energy, anger and delight of the rhythm and rhyme vanishes. Without the beat, there is nothing. The lyrics look daft; they are not strong enough to withstand the encroaching whiteness. Song lyrics, however slight, need some accompaniment, whether a guitar, a beat, or even the voice itself recast as instrument. Poems generate their own music, but songs need rhythms from elsewhere and the presence of the performer.
Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip?
‘Lose Yourself’ – Eminem (2002
Robert Frost understood this difference between poetry and the poetic. In 1913 when he first met Edward Thomas in Harold Monro’s Poetry bookshop, he knew he’d come across a genuine poet, even though Thomas had yet to write any verse. Thomas read and wrote prodigiously. By the time the pair met, he had already published some two dozen books and written almost 2,000 commissioned pieces, including a great deal of nature writing.
The next day was the missel-thrush’s and the north-west wind’s. The missel-thrush sat well up in a beech at the wood edge and hailed the rain with his rolling, brief song: so rapidly and oft was it repeated that it was almost one long, continuous song. But as the wind snatched away the notes again and again, or the bird changed his perch, or another answered him or took his place, the music was roving like a hunter’s.
from In Pursuit of Spring – Edward Thomas (1914)
Thomas wrote poetically, but he didn’t write poems. In his nature writing, Frost saw the potential for Thomas to turn his poetic prose cadences into the music of poetry. He badgered Thomas to take his eye and ear for nature and turn it into verse. The poems came thick and fast, with some 70 or so written in the first six months of 1914. Often Thomas returned to the notebooks he kept from his long walks in the Gloucestershire countryside, or to the published prose pieces that they begat. The result was something fundamentally different. Poetry.
What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.
They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,
On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches
And while they fought, if they remembered to fight:
So earnest were they to pack into that hour
Their unwilling hoard of song before the moon
Grew brighter than the clouds.
From ‘March’ – Edward Thomas
The poems that Edward Thomas produced before his tragic death from a shell blast on the first day of the battle at Arras are, in my opinion, both beautiful and brilliant. That is not to say that they are necessarily any more beautiful or brilliant than anything penned by Eminem or Dylan, but simply to recognise that they are different in what they achieve and how they go about achieving it. If we fail to acknowledge this distinction and rely instead on seguing from song lyrics to poetry, we are effectively undermining the orientations of both forms.
So let’s not try to call everything that is poetic poetry, or we end up diminishing the rich tapestry of aesthetic expression, whilst devaluing the skill of the poet – the skill to move through word and sound with nothing more than inky black marks on white open space.
Much is poetic; precious little is poetry.