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What Bob Dylan has been telling us as a poet

Masaki Horiuchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Of course, it is a literary fallacy to discuss poems only in terms of content without regard to form, such as word selection, rhythm and how the poem is vocalized. But space is limited, so let us try to get a rough overview of what Bob Dylan has been telling us as a poet, from his debut to the present day. After he dismissed the binary political stance of the leftist folk song movement like “black or white / friend or foe” in the first two years of his career, the work from his “Rock” period in the mid-1960s brought a revolution to the lyrics of popular music. I will not go into this topic in detail since I just recently wrote about it in Music Magazine. Living “like a rolling stone” is the state of being which nobody can escape, and in a chaotic, flowing world where we all can find “no direction home,” Dylan says that even the president of the United States sometimes must stand “naked,” carrying over the key word “naked” from his Beat predecessors as a condition of existence. When he cautioned, “Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters,” he was strongly urging listeners to live alone, existentially.

However, looking at the path Dylan subsequently took in his life shows that from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, after he divorced his first wife and jumped from a Jewish religious mentality to Christian beliefs, his “parking meter” became the key guiding values of God, transcending the secular world. From those times to the present day, the later Dylan has continued to search for a solid foundation for the individual’s life, and sing about the feeling of life on earth where that foundation can never be found, seeking salvation in love, only to become heartbroken by it. In the rarely discussed song “Where Are You Tonight?” from the album Street Legal (1978), for example, he says, “The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure / To live it you have to explode.” And in the version of “Need a Woman” included in the book The Lyrics, written when the album Shot of Love was recorded in 1981, he says, “Searching for the truth the way God designed it / The truth is I might drown before I find it… Well I need a woman.” These examples show that his conversion to Christianity, which occurred between the two songs, did not affect the continuity of his creative perspective. This sense that the “truth” does not exist anywhere in the world, in fact, had been already found in the mid-1960s, and there is not so much distance between the above mentioned attitude and those phrases like “My conscience explodes,” at the end of “Visions of Johanna” (1966), and “There are no truths outside the Gates of Eden” at the end of “Gates of Eden” (1965). The more fervently one seeks “the truth,” the more meaningless and chaotic the world becomes—this is Dylan’s unique obsession, which I am even tempted to call madness sometimes. His work from the 1960s, in which he seems to extol chaos, is not so different from “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” and “Foot of Pride” from the 1980s. While his tone is increasingly apocalyptic, the poet who sings of chaos is alive and well throughout.

Dylan sings of the evanescence and hard struggles of life in this world while expecting the existence of an eternal order. In this sense, his world view is a pre-20th-century one—of an era before capitalism and technology made life uniform and relativistic. He has inherited the views and values of southern Appalachian folk ballads, which the Carter Family collected, and the spirit, both sacred and vulgar, of the blues singers before World War II. Especially since the beginning of the 21st century, Dylan has borrowed again and again the format of blues and pop songs to portray the mind of a man (maybe in old age), who wanders about because of love and vacillates between positive and negative emotions. The poet, with full command of rhyming with simple words, goes inside fragments of stories to give shape to human emotions, as a brief play of simulacrum. Therein lies his radical conviction, that in American songs, the traditional and the popular are thoroughly one in the same. We can even say that he upgrades all the traditions of popular songs cherished by American people through his personal vision and linguistic sense.

In the song “Trust Yourself,” included in the album Empire Burlesque (1985), Dylan says, “Don’t trust me to show you the truth… trust yourself.” The grounding for life that he seeks is all his own. What we learn from his poetry is rather how to stand alone with one’s own aesthetic. As “the thief” in “All Along the Watchtower” (1967) tells “the joker” that they should stop talking falsely about their lives like a joke, one should strive to maintain sanity in the “world gone wrong,” and keep one’s “dignity” (the title of a song selected by Dylan for his Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (1994)) without following anybody’s example. That endless learning is made possible through Dylan’s art of poetry.

Masaki Horiuchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Masaki Horiuchi was born in 1962. His field of expertise is American literature. His coauthored works include Melville and the Wall of the Modern Age (in English, Nan’un-Do), Thoreau and American Spirit (Kinseido); The World of Masterpieces Series (11): Moby Dick (Minerva Shobo); and Literature We Read after the Tsunami (Waseda University Booklets). He is preparing to publish two books in 2017: Emerson: From Self to the World (Nan’un-Do); and Gozo Yoshimasu and America (Shichosya). His writings on Bob Dylan include “The Performer Who Turns Self into Other” (included in the Gendai Shiso May 2010 Extra Edition: Bob Dylan)