Culture Shock for the Dead Poets Society; John Keats versus Bob Dylan - Dennis Ellam Reports

By Ellam, Dennis | The Birmingham Post (England), March 28, 1998 | Go to article overview

Culture Shock for the Dead Poets Society; John Keats versus Bob Dylan - Dennis Ellam Reports


Ellam, Dennis, The Birmingham Post (England)


The best poets are dead poets, by popular consent.

So it was a courageous thing for the Culture Secretary Mr Chris Smith to offer the view this week that a dead English poet could be equalled by a living American one.

The works of Bob Dylan, he said, have as much "validity" as those of John Keats.

In the event, during an interview he gave to the Spectator magazine, a trap had been opened up for Mr Smith and he cheerfully plunged into it.

Commentators, pundits and critics have rushed after him to argue the point, whether a "star" of contemporary popular culture, and a hugely successful one at that, can possibly rank alongside a hero of proper literature who did what true poets should do, that is die young, broke and lovelorn.

Of course the Culture Secretary is correct, and the pro-Dylan lobby will be pleased to have his official endorsement - one body of work is as valid as the other.

Nobody writes or sings Dylan like Dylan, to paraphrase the marketing slogan which accompanied his records in the Sixties, and likewise no-one produced Keats quite as well as Keats could do (although the early 19th Century teemed with earnestly foppish young men who tried).

Validity is an elusive quality to define, but presumably Mr Smith took it to mean the relevance which a particular creative piece bears to the times in which it appears.

Well the times have changed, as radically as Dylan said they would, and with them the expectations by which we judge this thing called "validity".

Keats's speciality was the Ode. He wrote one to a nightingale, to his psyche, to autumn, to the woman he loved in vain.

He was a professional romantic, in an age which demanded romanticism. His words were designed to induce a round of swooning in the parlours where they were performed.

Dylan has proved his validity, not by staring at the trees or contemplating the nightingale, but by addressing the truths and the concerns of his own time.

His bleak epic Desolation Row, for example, written in 1 965, and the furiously cynical It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleedin') from the same year, portray a world of sham commercialism, spiritual bankruptcy, deceit at the highest level and between people, and the abuse of power and wealth.

Not a place for dreamers, in other words. Keats would have had to search hard to find a precious bloom to inspire him in this wasteland.

The common mistake is to dismiss Dylan as a merchant of popular tunes. Even one of the serious culture pages, looking for landmark examples of his work yesterday, fell back upon just two of the more familiar ones.

In fact, his catalogue of songs is immense. He has probably written more than 650, to date, and the 43 record albums he has released contain only a proportion of them. The standard has been erratic, ranging from the appallingly bad, to the disappointingly mundane, to the dazzlingly brilliant.

The only thing which is predictable about Dylan's career, one disoriented critic complained, is its unpredictability. A handful of his songs bear the hallmark of masterpieces, and ironically enough some of them are still among his lesser-known works. …

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