Bob Dylan – one killer of a poet

17 Jul

Bob Dylan

When people tell me they can’t stand Dylan, I get it. Really I do. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea.1

(I know women – white, black,2 of diverse age – who love Dylan, man and music. None qualify as twenty-four carat Geeks for Bob though. You must be white, male, middle class and a baby boomer to be even in the running.)

But when someone assures me Dylan is a mediocrity I know I’m in the presence of a philistine, a person who for one reason or another lacks objectivity. The truth, like it or not, is that the man is a colossus of postwar Western culture. Few figures – Beethoven, Wagner, Miles Davis and the Beatles spring to mind – can be said to have changed, radically, the direction of music outside of their specific genres. Dylan did. And not just the once.

I don’t always like Beethoven. Unlike Mozart he doesn’t always know when to wrap things up and move on. (Or does but can’t help himself.) Try the Pastoral’s third movement, a promising toon descending to a droning, groove-stuck waltz. But should you catch me saying Beethoven is ‘crap’ or ‘overrated’, know that you too are in the presence of a philistine.

It won’t happen though. And not just because I can forgive anything of a man who, on hearing that Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor, had to be physically restrained from hurling the MS for Symphony 3 on the fire. It also won’t happen because even if I didn’t massively enjoy much of his work, Pastoral included, I’d bow to a titan who simultaneously changed the terms on which music is created and consumed, as would Dylan and Fab Four, while shifting ‘serious’ music from classical to romantic, as did Coleridge et al in the arena of poetry.

Talking of poetry, here’s someone who, unforgivably for one of her intellect and calling, throws objectivity to the wind in a bile skewed rant – there’s a subtle clue in the multiple use of ‘creep’ – on Bob Dylan’s meagre talents.

Greer wrote this in 2008. The context being that, not three months earlier, Dylan had scooped a Pulitzer for “profound impact on popular music and on American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”.

I bet that had her choking on her possum pie. Imagine her spleen when the creep snatched the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. Especially a creep who delayed his acceptance speech – echoes of the Isle of Wight gig 3 – to the eleventh hour. Nobel winners must give an acceptance speech within six months of nomination. Freewheelin’ Bob pushed it predictably close to the wire but, equally predictably, the speech when finally it came was a master class in eloquence.

Leaving aside the unlikely claim that her hippie Lit students wanted her to teach Dylan rather than – as opposed to as well as – Donne and Yeats, Greer’s argument is flawed. For one thing, other than a facetious couplet I’ll return to in a moment, Dylan – a bluesman beyond compare – never to my knowledge made the claim that he is a poet. 4

Second, insofar as Greer’s dismissal of his status as a poet has merit, it is from a narrowly technical standpoint. Yes, by most understandings of what poetry is, he is surpassed by that other rock icon, Leonard Cohen. Yet Cohen was an admirer not only of his friend and rival’s compositions but the glittering wordplay of rapsters like Eminem. This from Stan:

Dear Slim, I wrote you but you still ain’t callin’
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ’em
There probably was a problem at the post office or somethin’
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot ’em
But anyways, fuck it, what’s been up man? How’ s your daughter?                                           My girlfriend’s pregnant too, I’m ’bout to be a father …

For the above to work its magic we have to experience the delivery. The singer’s a misogynistic fan, risingly incandescent at his idol Slim’s failure to write back. The words are underscored by bass’n boom, and interwoven with the melodic despair of Dido as the sorely put upon mother to be. If a watery grave doesn’t get her first.

Eminem’s lyrics are supposed to be heard.


Dylan’s too. Which leads us to Greer’s third error. Even from her narrow perspective she errs in dismissing him as a lyricist. The origins of lyricism are inseparable from music, as she is surely aware. Today the paths of songwriter and poet, though occasionally crossing, have diverged. It is possible to be a great songwriter, as Dylan assuredly is, but a mediocre poet. And vice versa. To divorce words from music as she does with Visions of Johanna, the song she singles out for ridicule, is akin to stripping the meter from Coleridge, chopping those magnificent ballads into arbitrary chunks that mangle the music of the word, silence its primal call and drain it of nine-tenths of the meaning:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.

For her part, Greer runs with the final verse of Visions of Joanna:

And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes everything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.

Viewed like this, out of context, she has a point. That Dylanesque tendency to stack image on outlandish image often drew accusations of pretentiousness and rank bad rhyming. It is most pronounced in the three albums 5 – Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde – that followed his ‘Judas’ shift from folk to rock, and preceded the second ‘betrayal’ – there’d be more – of Nashville Skyline’s dalliance with C & W.

My response to such charges being that:

Visions of Johanna featured on Blonde on Blonde, a 1966 album held by many to mark the launch of acid rock. Listen to the song in its mesmerising full, and you’ll see why.


Forty-two years separate 2008 from 1966. To put this in perspective, John Keats died at twenty-five. Did Greer suppose Dylan had done no more than tread water since Visions of Joanna, written four years after Freewheelin’, his second album, made him famous? That she chose a song so far back, to make generalisations about an artist whose career by 2008 already spanned close to half a century, bespeaks ignorance, malice or both.

Visions of Johanna contains lines of rare eloquence and beauty:

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while

But mixing phrases of searing resonance with dross thrown in to make a verse scan was something of a habit with the young Dylan. 6 The lines that follow are a case in point:

But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles

Visions of Johanna does not start with “April is the cruellest month”. As one respondent to Greer’s literalistic hatchet job cuttingly asked, how can a month be cruel?

The issue of doggerel is of doubtful relevance when a song’s meter is driven as much by the music, and in Dylan’s case unpredictable phrasing, as by the word forms.

Well, I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith
A nasty, dirty, double-crossin’, back-stabbin’ phony I didn’t wanna have to be dealin’ with
But I did it for you and all you gave me was a smile
Well, I cried for you – now it’s your turn to cry awhile

Like most of its author’s vast canon
, Visions of Joanna is meant to be heard and seen, 7 not dissected in the Guardian. Ezra Pound, a fine critic when taking time out from cheering on fascism, made the points that poetry loses its way when too far from music, and music loses its way when too far from dance. Bob the chameleon – here the troubador, there the stone faced man in the long black coat; here the scourge of the American Dream, there its romanticist – is also Bob the song and dance man.

But what does the song and dance man have to say on the question? This, from a talking blues on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964):

Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it.
Hope I don’t blow it.

In fact when you really get down to it, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that what’s irking Greer is this. While Female Eunuch – indisputably a landmark text – gathers dust on the shelves of the earnest but ageing, Blowin’ in the Wind, Times They are a-Changing, I Shall be Released, Mister Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone and scores of others of equal stature or greater continue to enthrall new audiences: some as anthems ringing down the decades to fire the spirit; others bearing quieter truths to those thirsting after authenticity in consumerland’s vast, arid spaces.

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
I thought you’d never say hello, she said
You look like the silent type
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue.


Milestones have their moment, Germaine. But greatness? That’s timeless.

With the question – is Bob a bard? – settled by his claim that he knows it and hopes he don’t blows it, I’ll turn to one more pressing. Is Bob homicidal?

This from Romance in Durango on the 1976 album, Desire:

Past the Aztec ruins and the ghosts of our people
Hoofbeats like castanets on stone.
At night I dream of bells in the village steeple
Then I see the bloody face of Ramon.
Was it me that shot him down in the cantina?
Was it my hand that held the gun?
Come, let us fly, my Magdalena
The dogs are barking and what’s done is done


Well, you say, a dream is just a dream, and Bob’s been sharing his since the Cuba Missile Crisis. What about this though, from the gorgeous Spirit on the Water on Modern Times (2006)?

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there.


Case closed, bar the forensics. Dudes and sheilas, I give you Bob Dylan: one killer of a poet.

* * *

  1. I offer a glimpse as to why Dylan has for more than half a century, man and boy, been my cup of tea in a short post on the fiftieth anniversary of Highway 61 Revisited.
  2. Nina Simone adored Dylan.
  3. I’d have been pissed off too – and know folk who did go and were – but, to be fair, IoW was his first public appearance since breaking his neck on a motorbike.
  4. As a matter of fact one aspect of this enigmatic man is how rarely he makes claims for himself. Some call this evasive, pretentious and/or calculated to fuel Cult Bob. I think that wide of the mark. This is a man who, more than most in his position, recognises and has spent a lifetime negotiating the restrictions and absurdities of fame.
  5. For all their flaws these three albums still stand with the greatest of his output. They also showcase Dylan the courageous innovator. If rock’s graduation – from ‘I love you, woo-bop-a-loo’ to willingness to address every aspect of the human experience – can be traced to any one individual, that individual is surely Bob Dylan. Last but not least his refusal to stand still, his willingness to take huge dialectical leaps at no small risk to his career, mark him as a true artist.
  6. That great balladeer, Bruce Springsteen, is not above doing similar. In his Steinbeck inspired Ghost of Tom Joad he follows the cliched “sleeping on a pillow of solid rock” with a sparkling “bathing in the city aqueduct”.  In rock at least, such juxtapositions are allowed, desirable even for a balance of fading and fresh, redundant and entropic.
  7. I only once saw Dylan live, in the seventies at Earls Court. Watching Martin Scorcese’s 2019 film, Rolling Thunder Revue – it’s on Netflix – I was struck by the way songs, many from the album Desire, I’d regarded as good but a long way short of his best, became so much more when delivered with the near fanatical commitment he gave on that long and financially bleeding tour.

12 Replies to “Bob Dylan – one killer of a poet

  1. “But should you ever catch me saying Beethoven is ‘crap’ or ‘overrated’, know that you too are in the presence of a philistine.” surely you need a capital P there?

    I was at the IoW and didn’t mind the wait at all.

    I count myself as more than an admirer but I’m not blind to his shortcomings: when I perform “Simple Twist of Fate” for instance I prefer Joan Baez’s suggestion of
    “He hears the ticking of the clocks
    The slap of waves upon the rocks”
    to the original
    “He hears the ticking of the clocks
    Walks along with a parrot that talks”
    (although I was shown a relevant postcard from his sister by someone I had had this discussino with at a session – too long to include here)

    My all-time-favourite love song of his is “Buckets of Rain” (well my version on the banjo) but again I’d stop short of claiming anything like poetic admiration for a lot of the lyrics

    • Buckets of Rain is sublime, Tony. Re Twist of Fate, I agree Joan Baez’s amendment is an improvement – but only just. We should get together and get this glitch sorted once and for all!

  2. A verse from Masters of War:
    “You’ve thrown the worst fear
    That could ever be hurled
    The fear to bring children
    Into the world”
    I don’t know whether this is doggerel or poetry, but it sure as hell moves me!

    • Me too John. And that’s one of four on Freewheelin’ – the others being Blowin’ in the Wind, Talking WW3 Blues and Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall – of which I’d say the same. That was in 1962, year of the Cuba Missile Crisis, and Dylan’s second LP. I once read somewhere that many later albums are just as good, but none surpass it. I agree.

  3. Such a pleasure to read a catholic (small “c”!) article that has time for both Beethoven and Bob Dylan. I love them both too. And I agree that the Pastoral Symphony is wonderful but goes on a bit. (Perhaps my modern temperament needs a bit of Mahlerian neurosis to break up the cheer?). The Greer piece has that depressing feel of being a deliberately contrarian provocation. Greer was more fun – and had more of a point – criticizing Tolkien. As for Bob, I agree that Visions of Johanna is one of his best. I don’t know if any other piece from him has the simple evocative majesty of:

    “And these visions of Johanna
    They kept me up past the dawn”

    • Hi George. I think you nail Greer with ‘deliberately contrarian’. In that respect she’s like a more erudite (but less eloquent) version of Julie Burchill. But isn’t it time both grew up, dropped the narcissism and put their not inconsiderable talents to better use?

  4. I’m a great admirer of Dylan too and interesting read though this is I was surprised to see that you repeatedly called the song Visions of Joanna instead of Johanna. Why did you drop the h when you’ve uploaded the entire song with Johanna sung again and again so clearly? You’ve even quoted the lyric correctly beneath your mistaken spelling. It left me wondering whether you really care that much after all. Or am I missing something?

    • A sense of proportion, perhaps? I’m happy to be corrected Steve but methinks you make a song and dance about so small a point. Ask yourself – honestly – could someone who didn’t care have written this post? Could you have?

      That said, I’ve amended the error …

      • Sorry about that, you’re right of course. I regretted sending it after I’d clicked it away. (I’m still tired and scratchy after the election result). I enjoyed your piece and share your enthusiasm for Dylan but it jarred to see the song title spelt wrong throughout. Still, it’s right now! Thanks.
        I saw him live way back at the beginning at the Festival Hall (1963?) and that remains in my memory as the best gig I’ve seen by anyone. But his output over the years has been wonderful.
        I like your site and political perspective and I also thought the Jonathan Cook piece was excellent. Best wishes.

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