Bob Dylan -poet?


There’s some debate about whether Bob Dylan should be considered a poet. I am surprised about that. Bob Dylan has been made the Nobel Laureate for poetry – and it’s no surprise to me at all.

One of the first albums I bought was Highway 61 Revisited and it remains my favourite Bob Dylan album. It completely changed the way I thought about poetry – when I was 16.

Since then I have listened to most Dylan records, including the bootlegs and I know more Dylan poetry than any other poet. I don’t know it by rote, I know it by heart. Sometimes my memory creates versions of his lines that aren’t what he sung, for I know them as I heard them when I was young.

I cannot think of any other poets – well only Shakespeare- that has so informed my sensibility. I’m glad to see the Nobel judges singled Dylan out for influencing the course of American lyric poetry. I don’t think Springsteen could have written Darkness on the Edge of Town or Johnny Cash – the American Recordings or Kris Kristofferson – Sunday Morning Pavement-  if Dylan hadn’t shown them how.

When I was at Cambridge in the early 80s , Christopher Ricks would bring in his ghetto blaster to Shakespeare and Milton lectures. When the lecture was done, he would do another on a Dylan Song. I remember 30 minutes on the line in Love Minus Zero/No Limit

“my love she’s like some raven, at my window with a broken wing”.

I never listened to the song or read Edgar Allen Poe the same way again. The poem is a good place to start. Here is Dylan singing it.

There is nothing remotely odd about a popular singing being acknowledge a great poet. Homer sang and his poetry is simply a transcription of his songs. Lyric poetry informs middle English, Elizabethan and everything since from folk through the blues to pop. Morrissey and Curtis, Yeats and Hardy – British poetry intertwines the popular folk traditions just as in America.

We do not have to wait for a genius to die to acknowledge him or her. Dylan was and is a genius- the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century in my book.

The surprise to me is that anyone should think him anything else.


About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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6 Responses to Bob Dylan -poet?

  1. George Kirrin says:

    In his 1965 UK tour (eg Manchester on 7 May) Bob introduced the Christopher Ricks featured song poem thus:

    “The name of this song is a, is a fraction.

    “Love Minus Zero is on the top …
    … and underneath is No Limit.

    “I made the title before I made the song.”

  2. I would argue that leonard cohen is the better poet !

    • George Kirrin says:

      Another poet? Yes.

      Better? Taste is subjective. We leave such decisions to academies and others.

      Swedish appeal? Dylan was awarded one of the two Polar Music Prizes in 2000. Cohen has still to win one.

  3. henry tapper says:

    I would agree with Elaine that Cohen is a better poet that Dylan is a more influential poet, Cohen speaks for himself, Dylan speaks for a generation

    • George Kirrin says:

      Henry, I’m afraid Bob would disagree.

      Interviewer: Why does it bother you when people sometimes refer to you as a voice of your generation?

      Dylan: I think that was just a term that can create problems for somebody, especially if someone just wants to keep it simple and write songs and play them. Having these colossal accolades and titles – they get in the way.

      Interviewer: You’re saying it made it harder for you to just do your job.

      Dylan: Yeah, absolutely.

      Interviewer: I guess it’s your fault ’cause you went and wrote all those lyrics that a lot of people think speak to them.

      Dylan: (Laughing) Yeah. And that’s OK. When it becomes a problem – like, when we get known outside of our field, then we’re known by people who don’t really know – who’ve never had any experience with what we do. Or we’re just names.

      You know, sometimes a person’s reputation can be far more colossal than the influence of the person. I don’t pay any attention to it anymore.

      So I was trying to reconstruct the feeling of what it does feel like to have anything like that thrown at you, where you’re expected to be something that you just flat-out know you’re not.

  4. henry tapper says:

    A case of the poetry being rather moire important than the man! Dylan knew too much to argue or to judge!

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