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High Culture

Was Bob Dylan the 20th Century’s Shakespeare?

We didn’t mind Maureen Dowd’s dismantling of (whatever remains of) the mythologizing of Dylan as a hero for/of protest. There was a moment in time when Dylan was hero for protest, but that time has passed mantle to a new moment, one with more lasting power: the one when he’s a hero for poetry. The Times They Are a-Changin once possessed potential to effect change, but as Dylan the Anarchist slips from (most of) our minds, Dylan the Poet remains. Brilliant critics attest, as do brilliant books; still, this latest Dylan “moment” provides a chance for one glimpse at one song. If it weren’t introduced to the world set to music,It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue would certainly qualify as a fine poem.

Dylan’s Lyrics Are Inherently Poetic

Consider this, from Baby Blue:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last

But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun

Crying like a fire in the sun

Look out the saints are comin’ through

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

That was the first stanza of four. Here is the last one:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

Strike another match, go start anew

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

Why This Is A Poem

Some of best Dylan covers catch the magic of the music. Here is a great cover of Baby Blue. Yet if Dylan’s literary gifts were easy, or even easy-ish to replicate, he would have more heirs apparent by now. That is true of most poets, and it roundly sets them apart from most pop stars. The former defies replication; the latter aims to perfect it. Here are some things that are poetic, and not replicable, about Baby Blue is this: There is a strong, memorable narrative voice. There is a threat of danger, which makes it not boring, and which also presents the possibility of a metaphor. (See Robert Browning.) There is an easy, unpretentious, lyricism (“Strike another match, go start anew”). And there is a story, a fact that places Dylan into a specific poetic tradition.

Dylan Is In the Canon

Like every epoch-shaking artist, Dylan was sui generis. Others can crib aspects of how his music makes us feel. But no one can crib the “poetry” of his lyrics. He’s in the canon. Radiohead is not in the canon. (We love them, but they’re not in the canon.)


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