Literary Shelf

Bob Dylan as A Poet

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
----Robert Frost in The Road Not Taken

In the literary history of the United States of America, and that too into the annals of poetry, it is none but Dylan, who has wavered and fluctuated so much, in taking the award from the Nobel Prize Committee of the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016, as for letting them in doubt, if he would accept or not, as for realizing within personally, if songs really would fall into the domain of poetry or not. His doubt was the doubt of a song-writer, his doubt the doubt of a poet, if these are really worthy of being called poems, the songs if poems in reality. The poet in him questioned and he kept mum and quiet keeping silence for months, letting them, musing in the dark, if he will accept or decline. He was at a loss whether to take or not, quite disturbed and bewildered too, as the dilemma, the dichotomy raked him so badly. But it was really a prerogative on their part, indeed a breakthrough in announcing his name for the most sought-after prize that he got it, as he so richly deserved it and had been one of the most nominated contestants even though never aspired for. Who can better stand before in popularity and acceptance? Unrivalled and unparalleled in his stature, he is no doubt a world class musician-composer carrying the traditions of music and song altogether so far. A guitarist, he is a musician, a song-writer and a singer and his lyrics the lyrics of the guitar. He is a bandsman and his poetry is the poetry of the bands, musical bands. He is a rock star, a pop star; the icon of American culture and tradition. But before we sum up, there are several things to be noted.

In Bob Dylan, one can see an American tradition and legacy of music without which none can flourish. There are definitely some before him to be acknowledged, whose contribution we know it not. What are the impacts and influences on him? How has he grown? Who is it who has imparted the lessons to him in music? How has it been his experience? Who is that who has nurtured and inspired him? How has he grown over the years? Were there no introducers? Were there no recommenders? There were definitely referees and still are whose services we know it not, what it goes in the making of a talent or genius. Talent hunt is equally difficult as writing.

Robert Allen Zimmerman whom we know as Bob Dylan was born on 24 May, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, but was raised in Hibbing. To see it differently, the diasporic origin can be marked in the lineage and heritage of Zimmerman, as his paternal grandparents were Jews from Ukraine and maternal grandparents Lithuanian Jews. His paternal grandmother’s family had been originally from Turkey. But his father who had an electric appliance shop moved to the wife’s home in Hibbing as for his polio and Dylan grew up there. At Hibbing High School, Bob got the idea of poetry and literature as he heard the teachers delivering on poetry like religion and taking it up so passionately. Even now he has not forgotten though far from classroom poetry.

The ideas and remembrances create music in him and the attachment and the things poetical get relayed through music, songs and lyrics. The best of our songs are sounds and notes, the frequencies and wavelengths of the pitches and tunes of sounds as signs and symbols. In his schooldays Bob had been interested in music, listening to the radio, while at school, he performed too, but once it turned loud. But at that time too he had not been Bob, but Zimmerman. Later on, he made a tryst with moving from this place to that place and performing. When he had been trying his luck, he thought of changing his name to get a breakthrough and in that way he turned into Bob Dylan. To know him is to search for many a thing, as his is a musician’s story, a music-composer’s, a songwriter’s; a singer’s, an artist’s story, a performing artist’s life.

It is not that Bob Dylan has turned into a great artist all of a sudden and he has taken time in evolving and someone has definitely helped him grow over the years. It is his teammates and bandsmen; it is his friends and lovers, the introducers. Joan Baez who had been popular even before him lent a hand to him after recording his songs in the 1960s. A musician-singer songwriter releases not his lyrics, but tries to sing and perform and in songs, poetry is tasted, the lyrical quality of poetry, relaying sound, musical sound. He is first of all a musician then a singer, a composer of music and songs, setting songs to music, but vocal music too is poetry and song-writing a part of poetry. Were the Elizabethan age poets not lyric writers and songsters? A good poem reciter can convert any piece of poetry if the content and the length are okay. The guitarist as a singer and a song-writer, a composer and a performer, an album-presenter, how to view it all in one? Dylan Thomas, his broadcasts and songs have definitely influenced him. George Harrison’s records too cannot go unheard. The Beats and the Beatles, their fatigue with materialistic plenty, search for cannot be sidetracked as Bob is bound to have these impact and influence which we can note in as traces.

For years, the media and the papers used to talk of the probable conferring upon of the Nobel Prize for Literature, to Bob Dylan. But the reality came true, when his name was declared and the committee agreed upon unanimously, conferring the award. In him, one can see the images of Walt Whitman, William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Woody Gutherie, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and so on. His poetry is the poetry of the guitar, the music of the guitar, words set to music and tuning, words coming through vocal sounds and systems. His love songs are the melodies of the guitar in rhythm with other accompaniments reflective of modernity, urbanity, modern accents of speech and colloquialism, colour, romance, dream, intimacy and stylish living and thinking and that too with a philosophical tinge never missing from.

A musician’s history will always be different from the of a writer penning down poems though the goal is the same, but the song is the singsong quality of the verse whereas the poem is are presentation of thought and idea, image and description, pattern and length as per the context of deliberation. A poem is a thoughtful presentation where emotion and feeling, thought and idea are considered. But in a song, lyricality, melody, musicality, singsong quality and rhythm are considered.

Though the musical fields are different with the experts of their own, of the country, folk, jazz, rock’ n’ roll and blues, Bob Dylan has tried to assemble and assimilate the musical trends of America with poetry writing, to be presented anew, to take the generation in his stride.  It is a time of rap, pop, jazz, rock’ n’ roll and going blues and Bob a hearer, a listener of all that and a performer too, and in sole isolation, how can one grow, disinheriting it all? He is a composer, a composer of music and a songwriter-singer, a scripter of the song, a putter of words into music and its vocal sounds.

Songs and lyrics can be specified for the singing quality and the lyrical note, but a poem tends to be poetical merely. But it does not mean that a poem cannot be sung; it can definitely be recited as recitation is an art. The intensity of emotion and feeling can make anything impressive on the way we present, we take to. Can a lyric be not written as a prose-paragraph? So are the things with Dylan as he has tried to imbibe the pop culture of America; the pop tradition of America; the vibes of it, the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the American language, the time-spirit.

Songs as poems, poems as songs, how to take the songs for a study? How to take up for studies in classrooms? How to teach them for the students of literature and poetry? What Dylan as a poet has to offer to? What the themes of his, how the images, how the ideas? Some of the poems can be taken and some may be left out where intensely personal and private is meant for the adults. The lyric writers write the songs personally and sometimes these are taken and put into a cinema. Sometimes situations are given to the lyric-writer or the song-writer and he writes keeping in view the context or imagining about the scene of the moment. This is like sit and draw or extempore speech.

As he has taken to the guitar and has kept performing so both the talents have gone together with him in a natural way. Had he been in a band from the start he would not have got the chance of evolving. But he evolved as tried to grow it himself. The music composers rear talents as well as let them not grow. Of the many awards and honours he has received, a few may listed as for our ready reference. His is a personal story of personal intimacy and relationship from Sara Lownds  to Carolyn Dennis to Sally Kirkland to Ruth Tirangiel to Sara Dylan to Dana Gillespie to Mavis Staples to Chris O’Dell to Joan Baez to Suze Rotolo, telling of romance and relation, inspiring his songs with their presence, but how to look into things private, individual and utterly personal which but the singer guitarist and composer knows it well? Something hidden, something open, which is but whose memory and melody, which is but whose lyric? How to take the road, the road of life and of love?

Bob Dylan, is he a rapper, a folk musician-singer, a country cowboy singer or a blue man? A jazz man or a rock and roll artist, who is he? A musician or a music-composer, who is he and what this to do to poetry? A singer or a songwriter or a musician, how does he assimilate in? Where to start from? Or, is he a poet as he inducts in philosophy, the philosophy of life? What is rap? What the blues? How the rock ‘n roll and the jazz are, the ingredients of these to be incorporated in poetry? What these to do in poetry?

Poetry as the representation of the folk, the country, the chapel, the jazz, the rock’ n roll, the disco and the blues, how to take to as and when we talk of Dylan as a poet? Poetry is the music of the guitar. The music composers too think in creatively in consultation with the bandsmen keeping the soundtracks; accents, stresses and falling pitches of the words which are but signs and symbols combining transmuted sounds. Can a musical composition not echo a song? Musical compositions are songs, melodies breaking mean it. Pictures and images are poems. Bob Dylan, is he a guitarist, a singer-songwriter or a lover boy? A tall man in the hat, coat and pants and boots taking the stage in consonance with American vibes of modern life and culture  is he the musical, singing stalwart giving an impetus to song-writing, Bob Dylan the musical-composer and songwriter; a representative singer-musician of the modern time. A rock star or a pop star, how the lyrics of his? In the rocks, what does a rock star do? In the pop songs and music, what does a pop star?  Who is whose, which is of whose?

Bob Dylan as a poet is a lyric-writer, a songster, a music composer for whom melodies matter it more, the song qualities rather than themes, thoughts and ideas. A romantic, he moves clutching along American fashions, styles and trends rather than poetry which comes to him through musical melody and composition. Had he been not a guitarist, he would not have been a composer; had he been not, not a singer-songwriter. With the guitar in hand, he has thought of music to give and the song to set to it rather than emulating, following others.

His is a slangy base and American curtailed speech is his forte, a poet of the present contemporary living and time-spirit and love matter, not a poet exactly in the strictest of the term, but a melody-maker, a music-maker, a song-singer. His lyric is the lyric of style, modernity and fashion; living with love. A poem is a lucid, emotional, passionate, imagery-laden presentation in verse form, but the rap beat only a musical rapper can say it. Bob Dylan as a poet is of the pop culture, so modn, colloquial and slangy, full of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the American language and Americanism singing the songs of the Americas be he from Texas, Massachusetts or California. He is a poet of modernity, urbanity and his poetry the poetry of the folk, country, chapel, jazz, rock & roll and blues and the jargon of these. His poetry is the poetry of the guitar and its music; the melody of music. A social activist, a civil rightist, he is a guitarist and his poetry the music of the guitar, vocal melodies cackling and taking us by surprise.

A singer-guitarist and songwriter of the 1960s, Robert Allen Zimmerman has been in limelight since 1960s with his debut folk song based album appearing in 1962, but Blowin’ in the Wind, 1963, The Times They Are a-Changin, 1964 songs impacting the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement contain in his notions and ideas approving and disapproving the establishment.

We cannot help without knowing the song meanings and song facts as these are quintessential

while dealing and dispensing with his poetry.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right as a song was written in 1962. It is all about the proposal of love and disposal as well, approving and disapproving of stylistically. It is up to the babe to decide. It is up to him to take it along or admonish it. Why to say goodbye? Why not to bid farewell? Do not think twice, it is all right, if feel you. Let the lover boy go whistling and piping. It is all about loving and proposing before and leaving which the romantics do it often. In his own admission, he loved a woman and a child, the woman wanted his soul and he her heart. Only a Lawrentine lover can do it.

Just two lines from Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right will suffice to do it:

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter, anyhow

The lines from the last stanza of the song, The Times They are a-Changing too may be cited in:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall

Bob Dylan raked by the dilemma if he really deserved the recommendation, a musician-composer, a singer-songwriter, he felt the dichotomy of being split in two rather than collaborating the stuffs and hesitated to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature for the poetic part merely, but in reality the song too is a part of poetry as the lyrical and singsong qualities are indispensable while dealing with the same. Bob Dylan as a singer of the modern pop culture has tried to imbibe the vibes of American life and culture, the nuances of American speech and slang, the idiosyncrasies of the language. 

Most of the time he remains on guard of what it happening around, what it taking place, most of the time, people coming and going, he is indifferent to when he chances upon the lost love of the lost mistress, even if he comes to notice his past love going. Most of the time, he keeps going, going on the road of life. There is no remorse for her; there is no lamentation or regret. To go is the name of life and so he keeps going, up and doing. He can handle everything what it to befall. Most of the time, he is ready to keep abreast of things and events. The past things; let the past bury its dead.

Let us go through the opening lines of the lyric, Most of The Time:

Most of the time
I’m clear focused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path, I can read the signs

The song touches the heart and so the melody soothing. Most of the time, most of the time he keeps, he keeps following, following the path which it turns, turns to and winds unfolding many sub ways to go to, pass through most of the time, most of the time there is nothing to lament, lament if to take it, take it otherwise.

Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues marks the development and growth of psycho-analytical thoughts and feelings of the mind stored into the dark layers of our consciousness and it comes to the fore as the babbles, murmurs and whispers of the soul frustrated and depressed or in quest of something supernatural or exploratory conditioned by the situations of life.

It is a great book, the blues of the heart, the jazz of life continuing and encompassing in all that it happens internally, in the mind of a man and soul who is so lost and bewildered and perplexed searching for values, what it lies unto the end, where the path leads to ultimately.

Half-said statements, poetic truths as from the abnormal drugged psyche tell of the life full of bare lies. But how to correct if one deviates from the path?

All these bemoaning and howling of the age, be that of the Beats, Beatles, hippies, romantics, Krishnites, roamers and ramblers haunted him and he as a witness of the age and times tried to transmute them into the body texture of music and melody, lyric and lyricism.

Let us take the first stanza from Under The Red Sky:

There was a little boy and there was a little girl
And they lived in an alley under the red sky
There was a little boy and there was a little girl
And they lived in an alley under the red sky

Under The Red Sky is definitely a beautiful nursery rhyme written in a narrative, make-believe style reminding us of the verses of Walter de la Mare and William Blake as they are. The little boys will definitely like to hear with so much patience and curiosity as he keeps telling and taking them into his poem.

To charter the course of his career is to start from his guitar and to hear the melody of lyrics impassable. Bob’s association with Columbia Records, which has really brought him to light, how to negate it the release of his albums?

Allen Ginsberg’s poems are themselves a testimony of the age he was born in as fragmented time, disturbed human psyche and random reflections abound in:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,


I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey
on the highway across America in tears to
the door of my cottage in the Western night
-----Allen Ginsberg in Howl

Robert Allen Zimmerman whose Hebrew name is Shabtai Zissel is a singer-songwriter, a musician-artist who starts his journey from the 1960s with his debut album featuring folk songs, but The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan strengthens his stature as a song writer with Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall drawing attention from. The Times They are a-Changing as the album with the title track works splendid for him. It is here where Bob Dylan comes closer to social justice cutting across the lines of prejudice and bias even voicing against poverty, racism and asking for social change. Another Side of Bob Dylan too adds to his fame and places him on a pedestal of glory. But the latter albums of the same time-span introduce him as a rock star and he doing with the rock items. Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are a-Changing, the songs have impacted the civil rights movement and the anti-war stance of the conscious people as Bob had been close to them politically, socially, emotionally and intellectually.

Blowin’ in the Wind sets the tune of the song as such:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?

How many roads to take, how many pathways to be a man, to be a man? The answer is my friend, the answer is my friend, blowing in the wind, blowing in the wind. How much time to devote, devote and dedicate in knowing the things of life and the world and come to realization?

Like a Rolling Stone too has a melody of its own:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?

But Series of Dreams is a different type where he talks of the conflicting times of crisis and influx and upheavals, psychological trauma and pain:

I was thinking of a series of dreams
Where nothing comes up to the top
Everything stays down where it’s wounded

In the song, Things Have Changed, he chooses the loving pair and keeps deliberating upon in a rocky mumbling and fumbling style of expression. Bob, who is the woman taking champagne? Whom has she assassinated? Say you, say you, Bob? Is she a bar girl? Is she a villain? Has she become herself or this society of ours has made her so?

Let us just see it:

A worried man with a worried mind
No one in front of me and nothing behind
There’s a woman on my lap and she’s drinking champagne
Got white skin, got assassin’s eyes

Even the pop culture has been impacted with his bourgeois consciousness and counter-bourgeois stance intercrossing so social, so romantic, so trendy, so folksy, so tonal and linguistic. There is something as that of George Bernard Shaw, the thesis and the anti-thesis of his but romantically, poetically in him which gives a new look of its own. His poetry is the poetry of the Beats and the Beatles, the music of the Beat tradition and the lyric of the Beatles which none can negate it the influences as man is a part of society which he lives in. His poetry is the poetry of the Afro-American world; his music the lyrics of the Afro-American world; the beats and nuances of it, the jazz, the blues, the rock n’ roll.

The man in the black long coat, who, who is this man, waiting, waiting and wanting to take a girl away, away to where? Who, who the man in the long black coat? Where from? Is he?

 Man in the Long Black Coat is his excellent poem, really a marvelous and mystical one:

Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry
Window wide open, African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze
Not a word of goodbye, not even a note
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

How to clear the identity of the man in the long black coat and who the girl going with him at his call? Where will he take to? And why is she going with him? And for what purpose?


Tangled Up in Blue is a beautiful lyric of Dylan touching the heart, taking our imagery away from:

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’;
I was layin’ in bed
Wondrin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together

It is all about love and loving, what one thinks and what it becomes, how the things keep turning. Here the poet recollects and remembers his love, loved and lost and re-found.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
-----Dylan Thomas in Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

In the words of Bob Dylan himself while delivering the acceptance speech:

When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.

While discussing the music and songs of Bob Dylan, one must be aware of it that Buddy Holly’s songs and lyrics too have influenced him. Had Buddy lived long, as it was cut short tragically, it would have been definitely contributory.

To consider him is to consider many a thing in literature; in poetry. What is poetry? What is songs? What the relation between poetry and songs? Are songs poems? What is music? How are song, sign, poem, song, picture, image, sound, music and melody related to? What is in a poem? What is it in a song? What is in a picture or an image? What is sound? What the letters? Are letters signs? Music, is it tuning, intonation, melody? Is the song a singable poem or anything can be sung? Or, a man should have the capability? Poetry as images and pictures; thoughts and ideas, how to discuss in reference to his poetry? Dhavani, rasa, how to take to? What is dhavani? What is it rasa? How the types of rasa? How the dhavani, lyrical or harsh or jazz or full of melodies? Who the man, the poet? A singer or a man of thoughts, who the writer? A man emotional, full of feelings is a poet or a man passionate, sensitive, sensuous or sentimental? Can prose lines be not poetry lines? Is modern poetry urban and of city-space gasping for open space? Is modern poetry of the hollow men? Broken lines as the lines of modern poems? How the jazz poems? How the blues? How the scripts of these? How do the musicians compose setting words to music? How the rock n’ roll compositions? How the country songs? The folk songs, where is he folk-related? How the chapel music ecclesiastical or mundane?

How the pop songs? The pop music and its composition, how the history of its lyrics? How the Beat traditions? What about the Beatles? How the rap music, the rappers and rap scripts? How the alignment and arrangement of words and melodies? What is that he has imbibed, how the traditions before? What the influences and impacts bearing upon? What is it that gone in the making of his personality? How have the bootleggers, hippies taught in adversity? Whatever be that, Bob belongs to a tradition, a legacy of musical tradition and lineage and is under the influence and impact of these definitely of which he is also a witness to that.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
----Robert Frost in The Road Not Taken


More by :  Bijay Kant Dubey

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