‘He examines the nightingale’s code’: Bob Dylan, Poetry, and Literature by Peter Robinson

Photograph © Douglas R. Gilbert:  http://www.douglasrgilbert.com/Bob_Dylan


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THW3: September 1, 2016    THW2: June 1, 2016     THW1 March 1, 2016



One day in June 1999, I was sitting in the living room of our apartment in Sendai, Japan, surrounded by the clutter of two daughters’ toys, drawings, cutouts and collages, when the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was a London newspaper journalist who wanted to record my answers to some questions about Bob Dylan. Did I think he was a poet? I was a poet myself, wasn’t I? Did I think his lyrics stood up as poetry? I was an English professor, wasn’t I? Did I think Dylan’s songs should be taught on English literature courses? (I was teaching such a course to second-year students at Tohoku University). What did I think about Dylan as a candidate for the Nobel Prize? (He had been nominated in 1997, the year of Italian dramatist Dario Fo). What did I think about the new Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s reported ambition to do for poetry what Dylan had done for it in the sixties? The journalist had rounded up some of the usual suspects, one of which must have put him on to me, so that he could garner opinion for a silly season article on Dylan among the professors. To my knowledge, this dodgy idea for a bit of copy did not result in a publication – though some years later Chatto & Windus issued a collection of essays edited by Neil Corcoran called Do You, Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors (2002), including chapters by some of those suspects. That my tape-recorded telephone responses did not make the newsstands was probably just as well, thinking back on what I must have said.

The phone call brought up an occasion some ten years before when, as a hard-pressed supervisor for various Cambridge colleges, I was contacted by an undergraduate called Nick De Somogi who came to interview me for his dissertation on Bob Dylan that, if I recall, was supervised by Christopher Ricks. This same question came up: can Dylan’s lyrics stand alone as poetry? On both occasions I gave the same answer: ‘No, they can’t.’ Why not? Poetry has been understood over many centuries in English-language cultures to be words composed for, predominantly, a speaking voice – and, consequently, the harmonics and dissonances of the variously weaker and stronger accents in naturally cadenced, pitched and stress-timed spoken English are the ground of its patterns, coherences, and aesthetic orders. Singing is different from speaking: it produces a far greater histrionic range; it allows for enormous distortions of spoken stress patterns so as to generate its expressiveness; and the different structures of music provide a backbone for the sung text which it doesn’t have to (though it may) demonstrate in its own compositional mode.

Dylan has more than once been asked questions about whether his songs are poetry. In an interview with Paul J. Robbins of the Los Angeles Free Press in September 1965 the following exchange took place:

xxxxxxIf you are a poet and write words arranged in some sort of rhythm, why do you switch xxxxxxat some point and write lyrics in a song so that you’re singing the words as part of a xxxxxxGestalt presence?

xxxxxxWell, I can’t define that word poetry, I wouldn’t even attempt it. At one time I xxxxxxthought Robert Frost was poetry, other times I thought that Allen Ginsberg was xxxxxxpoetry, sometimes I thought François Villon was poetry – but poetry isn’t really xxxxxxconfined to the printed page. Hey, then again, I don’t believe in saying ‘Look at that xxxxxxgirl walking! Isn’t that poetry?’ I’m not going to get insane about it. The lyrics to the xxxxxxsongs … just so happens they might be a little stranger than in most songs. I find it xxxxxxeasy to write songs. I been writing songs for a long time and the words to the songs xxxxxxaren’t written out just for the paper; they’re written as you can read it, you dig. If you xxxxxxtake whatever there is to the song away – the beat, the melody – I could still recite it. xxxxxxI see nothing wrong with songs you can’t do that with either – songs that, if you took xxxxxxthe melody away, they wouldn’t stand up. Because they’re not supposed to do that, xxxxxxyou know. Songs are songs … I don’t believe in expecting too much out of any one xxxxxxthing.

Dylan is remembering ‘Poetry in motion / Walking by my side’, composed by Paul Kaufman and Mike Anthony, sung by Johnny Tillotson, a top hit in the year of his debut album, and he’s rejecting its use of the word. I wouldn’t quite go along with him: the word ‘poetry’ is frequently used as a form of ambiguous superlative for something performed with great natural style and grace. That’s one of its definitions, and indicates why the word ‘poetry’ is still used in a culture that doesn’t superficially appear to have much use for the art, yet still retains this curiously privileged and privileging category. Thus, if his songs are said to be ‘poetry’ in this sense, then they are highly valued, naturally graceful things. He has also been a poet as more restrictively defined when writing poems, which he has occasionally done, publishing ‘Some other kinds of songs …’ on the sleeve to Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), and reciting unaccompanied his ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’ at the Town Hall, New York City, on 4 December 1963.

In another interview, with J. R. Goddard in Village Voice, March 1965, Dylan was inclined to stretch the word ‘poet’ beyond its stricter reference to people who write poems:

xxxxxTHE PRESS: Bob, what about the situation of American poets? Kenneth Rexroth xxxxxxhas estimated that since 1900 about thirty American poets have committed suicide.

 xxxxxDYLAN: Thirty poets! What about American housewives, mailmen, street cleaners, xxxxxxminers? Jesus Christ, what’s so special about thirty people that are called poets? xxxxxxI’ve known some very good people that have committed suicide. One didn’t do xxxxxxnothing but work in a gas station all his life. Nobody referred to him as poet, but if xxxxxxyou’re gonna call people like Robert Frost a poet, then I got to say that this gas xxxxxxstation boy was a poet too.

 This boy from the gas station crops up at least once more. Again in 1965, perhaps in response to being called ‘a poet’ by Peter Yarrow in his introduction to Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, the singer observed: ‘You don’t necessarily have to write to be a poet. Some people work in gas stations and they’re poets.’ If the boy in the gas station is a poet, why can’t Dylan be? People have said so, and he has denied it: ‘I don’t call myself a poet’, he also quipped in 1965, ‘because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist.’ Dylan’s 1 minute 40 second introduction to The Hawks, who then play ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ on 27 May 1966 at the Albert Hall, London, includes these further comments on his routine pigeon-holing: ‘It doesn’t mean a thing, you know, I mean you don’t have to … but they’re all poets, you understand, if it comes out that way, it comes out that way … all poets, you know.’

Allen Ginsberg was one of Dylan’s many famous fans, and refers to him with largely unadulterated admiration in his poetry: ‘On plains towards Pasco, Oregon hills at horizon, Bob Dylan’s voice on airways, mass machine-made folksong of one soul – Please crawl out your window – first time heard’; elsewhere he refers to ‘The heavenly echo of Dylan’s despair / before the silver microphone’; and ‘Angelic Dylan singing across the nation’; later: ‘Dylan silent on politics, & safe – / having a baby, a man’; or again ‘listening to late baritone Dylan’. The greatest of the Beat poets appears on the opening sequence of Don’t Look Back, and later shows up in the film itself. He has a larger role in Renaldo and Clara and in late 1971 he called upon, not very successfully, Dylan’s musical talents in an attempt to record some of his poems for an album. Ginsberg, however, is not uncritical of the writing in Dylan’s song lyrics, telling an interviewer for the BBC Mavericks radio show: ‘Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve always liked his poetry and always admired the exuberance, and the breath, the insight, the brilliance of the language’ but there ‘may be something lacking in the total coherence’.

Not all Ginsberg’s poems can be praised for their ‘total coherence’, and no sooner has the Beat poet slipped in this apparently limiting judgment than he goes on to praise Dylan as ‘maybe the great bard of the late twentieth century’. Yet with that word ‘bard’ he qualifies what he’s saying again, for it evokes the romantic image of Dylan as a sort of troubadour. In our day, though, poets are most of the time distinguished from singer-songwriters by the fact that they read from their works but don’t, at the same time, accompany themselves on musical instruments. I have organized and attended an evening, at the 1979 Cambridge International Poetry Festival, in which Ginsberg’s own attempt to get the music back into the poetry reading were presented. How convincing were the results depended in part on your willingness to credit the role of embarrassment as a liberating force in Ginsberg’s work. As he began to chant verses from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience accompanied by a simple harmonium and guitar, a distinguished English poet very deliberately got up and left the auditorium.

In a Telegraph article published on 14 October 2016, the day after the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Christopher Ricks reiterated his caveat that although he has devoted a great deal of critical and editorial skill down the years to Dylan’s lyrics, he believes they are diminished if not received in their musical and performance settings. He reminds us:

xxxxxxFirst, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the xxxxxxtask of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed. (Wordsworth’s xxxxxxconviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it xxxxxxdoesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more ‘important’: the xxxxxxvoice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or xxxxxxthe hydrogen?) And that therefore there is a danger, even while we are very grateful xxxxxxthis time to the Nobel Committee, if we simply allocate Dylan’s art of song to xxxxxxliterature or Literature, of our privileging the words, as though song were not a xxxxxxtriangle and often an equilateral triangle.xxxxx

Though there may be a danger here, I’m not sure how mortal it is; and it’s not one to which those who admire Dylan’s work, as Ricks does, are likely to succumb. Nevertheless, while it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more important, it might help in thinking about the nature of this singer-songwriter’s art to recognize that the ‘compound’ is often an improvised and unstable one in which the parts are not fused into molecules. Rather, they coexist in precarious performed states that are not usually repeated, and can be repeatedly transformed by adjustments of instrumentation, tempo, key, chord change and tune – not to mention the live rewritings of the lyrics to which Ricks has taken attentive note in his co-edition. A large part of Dylan’s art is involved in deciding between experiments of this kind, as when the studio temptation to do ‘Just Like a Woman’ with an up-tempo, 4/4 time Bo-Diddley riff, probably by Robbie Robertson, is resisted and the arrangement reverts to mid-tempo 6/8 time, with Spanish-guitar arpeggios most likely by Charlie McCoy, at some point after Take 4. It is part of Dylan’s art over time that such arrangements and rearrangements may damage or enhance a song’s emotional poise and complexity.

The title of this essay is a line that does not appear on any of the artist’s originally released albums, but constitutes one of his most intriguing revisions. The poet Mark Ford – born in 1963, the year that The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released – has written a poem called ‘The Nightingale’s Code’ which appeared in Soft Sift (2001). As might be expected, he is a confirmed admirer of the singer’s work. You can read his entry for Dylan in the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry edited by Ian Hamilton (1994); the second (2013), though, removes it, presumably at the instigation of its editor Jeremy Noel-Todd. The phrase ‘nightingale’s code’ can be heard in the last verse of the now officially released attempts to record the song that became known as ‘Visions of Johanna’, reportedly Andrew Motion’s favourite Dylan song, one whose released Nashville recording can be heard on Blonde on Blonde (1966) – which the Nobel committee spokesperson believed the place to start if wishing to appreciate his work.

That song’s title looks indebted to the Beat revival of William Blake, seeming to be within audible distance of ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’, supported by the appearance of the same poet’s ‘Little Boy Lost’ who ‘takes himself so seriously’. Thus a line that was probably prompted by another Romantic poet’s signature work, John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, might find a place there too. The song is much concerned with the immortality of art, as, for instance, ‘Inside the museums’ where ‘infinity goes up on trial’. The nightingale has a pedigree long prior to Keats’ taking it up, so there would be plenty to examine, for example, in its association with sexual violence in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Philomel was turned into such a bird after her violation ‘by the barbarous king’ Tereus, ‘So rudely forced’, as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (‘fighting in the Captain’s tower’) composed and revised it into The Waste Land. Dylan’s final verse climaxes with a sustained series of lines rhyming on the same sound, as here in the earlier version transcribed from Take 5 of ‘Visions of Johanna’ on The Cutting Edge CD 4, track 19:

xxxxxxMadonna she still has not showed
xxxxxxand we see the empty cage now corrode.
xxxxxxWhere her cape of the stage once had flowed,
xxxxxxthe peddler he steps to the road.
xxxxxxEverything’s gone which was owed.
xxxxxxHe examines the nightingale’s code
xxxxxxstill written on the fish truck that loads.
xxxxxxMy conscience explodes.
xxxxxxThe harmonicas play, the skeleton keys, and the rain.
xxxxxxAnd these visions of Johanna are all that remain.

The song was originally called ‘Seems Like a Freeze Out’, and the fish truck is a refrigerated van delivering, perhaps, to a restaurant or shop in the early hours of the morning in a bohemian district of New York where the singer and assorted others have spent the night in an artist’s loft awaiting the arrival of Johanna who ‘still has not showed’. With the non-appearance of the haunting woman, the singer’s relationship has also gone into the freezer (or he has been ‘frozen out’ in the American idiom), and this being put on ice becomes associated with the stilled eternity of art, which is why ‘the Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues / You can tell by the way she smiled’ – the highway blues being ones where you have to ‘move on’.

In such a context the appearance of Keats’ ‘immortal bird’ would also make sense, and ‘the nightingale’s code’ is a sibilance and consonant away from ‘nightingale ode’. So why is it edited out never to return? In revision, the same-rhyme lines are given much more syntactic continuity and the graffiti on the back of the truck is changed from the mysterious ‘nightingale’s code’ to the seemingly explanatory ‘everything’s been returned which was owed’, written on the truck that ‘loads / While my conscience explodes’. The revision helps sustain the early morning realism in Greenwich Village. It’s not Berkeley Square, London, after all, either in mood or setting. The presence of a Keats allusion can be explained, and so can its removal. This is not a drug song, as Dylan also pointed out when introducing it on 27 May 1966 to the Albert Hall audience: ‘I’m not saying this for any kind of defensive reason or anything like that. It’s just not a drug song, I don’t … it’s just vulgar to think so.’

The award of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan may have changed the default question asking ‘Is he a poet?’ to ‘But is it literature?’ What it hasn’t done is alter the nature of his extraordinary songbook and discography. Nor is there any denying the literary allusiveness of that output. Samuel Johnson gets a look in when ‘they say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings’ in ‘Sweetheart like you’. Edgar Alan Poe makes the citation index at the opening of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ where you’re advised not to ‘put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue avenue’ – one steeped in Jack Kerouac too. Mr. Jones, who is re-evoked in a 1980s song by David Byrne, has ‘been with the professors’ and read ‘all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books’. ‘Shakespeare, he’s in the alley’ in ‘Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. The singer’s affairs in the last cut from Blood on the Tracks have ‘all been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’s’, while Dylan appears to have absorbed suggestions from Weldon Kees around the time of writing the work for that album, stealing perhaps from his ‘Relating to Robinson’ where, ‘towards the docks’, ‘a radio / Was playing There’s a Small Hotel’ – ready to appear in ‘Simple Twist of Fate’.

‘Tiny Montgomery’, ‘Don’t Ya Tell Henry’ and ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ are featured in Hugh Haughton’s The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry (1988), where he notes: ‘But of all modern American poets, it is perhaps Bob Dylan who makes most memorable use of nonsense in his vernacular-oracular songs, especially such junkyard do-it-yourself mythological poems as “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Desolation Row”.’ As The Captain’s Tower: Seventy Poets Celebrate Bob Dylan at Seventy (2011) amply illustrates, the Nobel Laureate’s influence on the poets is by no means restricted to ‘The Nightingale’s Code’ by Mark Ford, or the last line of ‘Outing’ from his first collection Landlocked (1992): ‘I won’t be going to Hell for anybody’, or ‘like / a complete unknooown,’ a voice from the pack / Intoned …’ in ‘Ravished’, his elegy for Mick Imlah in Six Children (2011). Not everyone’s been a believer, of course. Elizabeth Bishop wrote in a letter to Robert Lowell of 28 January 1972: ‘I think you are too kind about Bob Dylan’, adding: ‘I tried; even bought 2 records.’ Lowell had told Ian Hamilton in an interview that ‘Bob Dylan is alloy; he is true folk and fake folk, and has a Caruso voice. He has lines, but I doubt if he has whole poems. He leans on the crutch of his guitar’ – all of which may be, or have been, true, though not as this American poet seems to have meant them.

Lowell is perhaps haplessly recalling ‘Fourth Time Around’, which ends: ‘I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine’. The poets are forever in danger of taking themselves, or being taken, too seriously, and how the evidence has piled up. New Morning (1970) includes ‘Day of the Locusts’, which alludes to the novel by Nathaniel West, a piece reporting on his receipt of an honorary music degree from Princeton University (‘Sure was glad to get out of there alive’). It also contains songs sort-of commissioned for a play called Scratch by Archibald MacLeish, a poet chiefly remembered for the aphoristic line ‘A poem should not mean, but be’. His Broadway play opened ‘on May 6, 1971, and closed 2 days later on May 8’ – as Dylan dryly recalls at the end of that chapter in Chronicles: Volume One (2004). These, then, are among the reasons why ‘Is it poetry?’ and ‘Is it literature?’ are not questions those who enjoy Dylan’s art need or care to answer. It’s what it is, and we’re grateful for it.

Peter Robinson is the author of many books of poetry, translations, and literary criticism. He has also published a collection of short stories and his novel, September in the Rain, has just been published by Holland House Books. Awarded a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for The Great Friend and Other Translated Poems (Worple, 2002), he was winner of the John Florio Prize for The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems of Luciano Erba (Princeton, 2007).

Douglas R. Gilbert has been a serious photographer since the age of fourteen and joined the staff of Look magazine in New York at the age of twenty-one. A few years later, he left Look to work as an artist and has since had his work published in countless international publications. His work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena CA, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, as well as in many private and institutional collections.

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