Bob Dylan: The Poet's Poet

I had the idea that I was hallucinating, that it was William Blake's voice coming out of the walls and I stood up and put my hands on the walls and they were vibrating

March 14, 1974
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on Issue No. 156

Memory is a beautiful thing — as I get older I learn to cherish it. It seems so beautiful or ugly that it is often more than real. Sometimes the vision is lit up with imagination; sometimes the imaginings have the shapes of real acts and gestures we call experience.

Experience is physical matter — and there is no sense in hanging onto it. It is a pleasure to let memory pour through the consciousness like nuggets of gold and moss agates and crystals of quartz clicking through the fingers at a rock shop. One never plans to keep those stones but the pleasure of feeling them is lovely.

The autoharp Bob Dylan gave me early in 1966 sat on the mantelpiece for six weeks before I picked it up and strummed it. A black and magical autoharp. Afraid of music, I had always felt totally unmusical — except in appreciation. Bob had asked me what instrument I'd like to play (I was writing song lyrics). I said autoharp out of the clear blue though I had no picture of what an autoharp looked like. There must have been people playing them on farms in my Kansas childhood.

San Francisco poets were poor in 1965 and it was an impressive present and it committed me to music. There was the interest in writing lyrics and perhaps a new way to use rhyme.

Rock had mutual attraction for all; a common tribal dancing ground whether we were poets, or printers, or sculptors, it was a form we all shared. I spent a year and a half learning to play autoharp in an eccentric way and wrote songs like "The Blue Lyon Laughs," "The Allen Ginsberg for President Waltz" and "Come on God, and Buy Me a Mercedes Benz."

I bought an old amplifier and stood in front of the mirror whanging on the autoharp. Obsessed with John Keats' question: What weapon has the lion but himself, I tried to make it a song and sang it so many times so loudly that I wonder what the neighbors thought in those old days when acid rock was a baby.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

In December 1965, when we had been bombing Vietnam for eight months, Dylan read "Poisoned Wheat," a long anti-war poem of mine. One day as we were eating chicken, I handed him another copy. He left huge greasy fingerprints and he did it with complete aplomb. It seemed very non-materialistic and natural not to notice the blotches. It seemed right to treat works of art as part of the transformations of life. Later I gave the copy to a girl who wanted Bob's fingerprints.

The first person to play a Dylan album for me was the poet David Meltzer. It was Dylan's first album, and I heard it shortly after it came out in March or April of 1962. I could not understand what David heard in the album. In high school I knew people at the University of Chicago and in New York City who were singing like that — just some hillbilly-intellectual music that I'd gotten bored with earlier. In retrospect, Dylan must have shown a direct creative thrust without the "Art" self-consciousness of other singers.

Early in 1965 a friend of my wife Joanna came to visit and brought the Dylan album with "She Belongs to Me." The album had changed her life-image from a tragic loser to a proud artist. Joanna heard and understood Dylan at once and completely, I think.

In 1965 everyone had been after me to listen to Dylan carefully — to sit down and listen to the words and the music. I absolutely did not want to hear Dylan. I imagined, without admitting it to myself, that Dylan was a threat to poetry — or to my poetry. I sensed that a new mode of poetry, or rebirth of an old one, might replace my mode. In the long run, rock lyrics have sensitized many people to words and brought them to discover poetry.

At last I could not resist Joanna's demand that I hear the album. We had a banged-up record player in the hallway at the top of the stairs. Late at night, in the pale-gray hallway-light, Joanna sat me down in front of the speaker and told me to listen to the words. I began to hear what the words were saying, not just the jangling of the guitar and the harmonica and the whining nasal voice. The next thing I knew I was crying. It was "Gates Of Eden": "At dawn my lover comes to me/And tells me of her dreams/With no attempts to shovel the glimpse/Into the ditch of what each one means . . ."

I had the idea that I was hallucinating, that it was William Blake's voice coming out of the walls and I stood up and put my hands on the walls and they were vibrating.

Then I went back to those people who had tried to get me to listen and I told them that I thought the revolution had begun. "Gates Of Eden" and those other songs seemed to open up the post-Freudian and post-existentialist era. Everyone didn't have to use the old explanations and the mildewed rationalities any longer.

By the time I met Bob, his poetry was important to me in the way that Kerouac's writing was. It was not something to imitate or be influenced by; it was the expression of a unique individual and his feelings and perceptions.

There is no way to second-guess poetry or to predict poetry or to convince a poet that the very best songs in the world are poetry if they are not. Bob Dylan is a poet; whether he has cherubs in his hair and fairy wings, or feet of clay, he is a poet. Those other people called "rock poets," "song poets," "folk poets," or whatever the rock critic is calling them this week, will be better off if they are appreciated as songwriters.

At a party after his concert at the Berkeley Community Theater in December, 1965, Dylan told me that he had not read Blake and did not know the poetry. That seemed hard to believe so I recited a few stanzas. One was the motto to "The Songs of Innocence and Experience" which begins: "The Good are attracted by Men's perceptions/And think not for themselves/Till Experience teaches them to catch/And to cage the Fairies & Elves . . ."

Bob was sitting on the floor and everyone crowded around him. Joanna, who has a tendency to go to sleep when she's pleased and in a crowd, started to sleep with her head in my lap. Someone told her in an ugly way that she ought to wake up — that if she didn't want to hear what was being said, there were plenty of others who would like her place close to Dylan. One wonders if those were honors being paid to a popular poet, or a worshipful voice in the crowd that the poet argues against.

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