Ripe for Dylan's Scorn

By Maxwell, Glyn | The Evening Standard (London, England), November 11, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Ripe for Dylan's Scorn

Maxwell, Glyn, The Evening Standard (London, England)


IT'S not easy to write about Bob Dylan if you love him. The minute you put pen to paper you've stumbled on to his firing range. You're Mr Jones in Ballad of a Thin Man, who knows "something is happening here" but doesn't "know what it is"; you're "Ezra Pound and TS Eliot" pointlessly wrangling on Desolation Row; or you're one of the pestilent dons foolishly awarding him a degree in Day of the Locusts. You know nothing, you know too much, or you're some sort of blight on the nation.

Critiquing the critics should reduce you to an even lower level of parasite. Then again, ridiculing them like Bob would is not an option if, as in my case, you chickened out of contributing to this book in the first place.

Is Bob Dylan a great poet? No, he isn't. His poetry is slack, his "poetic" prose unreadable, and the poets he cites as influences (Blake, Poe, Rimbaud, Ginsberg) are, no matter how splendid or memorable their creations, some of the worst teachers one can have, guiding numberless young sparks down the road of excess to the palace of useless self-indulgence.

Bob Dylan is not actually a poet at all. He's a great songwriter, the best of the past 40 years, with at least as substantial a body of work as any poet of the period.

Songwriters string words over music, poets shore them against silence.

These arts are as different as dancing and sculpture, though an air of loftiness and mystery has always veiled the word "poet", as against the flavour of commerce and populism attendant on "songwriter". Yet, just as great poetry makes songwriting look like the candy it generally is, this one great songwriter makes contemporary poetry look, on the whole, too personal and provisional, too smug in its politics, too indifferent to the world.

And it's no surprise that joining the ranks of Dylanologists nudges one into the searchlight of his scorn. There are not many ways of behaving on Earth that don't. Of tyrants and vagabonds, presidents and postal clerks, girlfriends and gangsters; on deserts, in cities, down streets, by rivers; as ballads, broadsides, lilts, lullabies, rock and pop and blues and country, Dylan's thousand-odd songs surge in and out of memory.

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