Sunday, November 21, 2004

But is it poetry?

The Economist, reviewing Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, says:

There is a striking absence in the book of Mr Dylan’s lyrics. He focuses instead on the music itself. This is wise, since his lyrics, like [Woody] Guthrie’s, do not have the art to stand alone as poems. Both men wrote wonderful songs, but they are just that.

This is an issue almost as polarising as the Iraq war. Was Dylan a great poet? I used to think so as a callow teenager, but now I agree with The Economist. Taken out of the context of the songs they are part of, Dylan’s lyrics read mostly like adoloscent ramblings. But his best music is undeniably powerful art, and his lyrics are, in the sense of how they fit into that package, often brilliant. How strange this is: lines that would make for mediocre poetry being transformed into high art by a bit of music and some raspy singing. Don’t we underestimate that music and that voice, then?

For the counterview, read Christopher Ricks’s Dylan's Visions of Sin, which, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “confirms Dylan's poetic genius and elevates the poet of the north country to canonical status alongside Tennyson, Shakespeare and Milton.” Also read Tim Riley’s review of Ricks’s book in Slate, and Riley’s review of Chronicles on WBUR.

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