Bob Dylan: The Poet's Poet

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Bob is a prisoner, of his fame and fortune. When he says, "I'm anyone who lives in a vault . . .," he means himself. He is a real poet who lives the poems that he sings. A low of people who hold Dylan in their dream baskets think the songs are a confection — that they are cute and sweet the way Rod McKuen is. But everything I've seen convinces me that Bob is the real thing, that he is no joke, that he has no answers, that he is a poet, that he is trapped most of the time.

The several new songs that I heard in the concerts were domestic (about wife and home) and inspirational. I hope this is the direction that Dylan is going. It would be good to see lots of young Americans put back on their feet — not through renewed faith in the old values that have been shot down, but through greater awareness of themselves on an earth that was once beautiful — and that still has pockets of beauty. I'd like everyone to begin to get some sense of what, and who, they are — and a further sense that something can be done to elevate the vicious mindlessness of politics and bio-environmental destruction and the extinction of the species of living plants and animals. A lot of the poets are moving in that direction — Ginsberg, Snyder, Duncan, Creeley, Waldman.

Thinking of Dylan's poetics I had brought along some books as background material: Seventeenth Century Suite by Robert Duncan, poems by Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, Black Music by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Kafka's "Josephine The Singer."

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In Black Music, published in 1968, Baraka says that the content of white-rock, anti-war and anti-authoritarian songs generalizes "passionate luxurious ego demonstrations"; that the artists want to prove that they are good humans though in fact, Baraka contends, they are really sensitive antennae of the brutalized and brutalizing white social mass. Baraka insists that is a cop-out and the music is still wealthy white kids playing around. We should remember Baraka's viewpoint; it may be narrow but light sometimes passes through a thin slit. The Beatles did not write anti-war songs. When asked about that they replied that all their songs are against war. There may be some beams of light in that crack too.

In Toronto I read Kafka's "Josephine The Singer." A mouse-narrator relates an account of a woman-mouse named Josephine who is a singer. She proclaims herself a great artist and the other mice congregate to hear her at the risk of their lives. But nothing will satisfy her ambition. She has a coterie of worshipful followers. Many of the mice people, however, are not at all sure that what she does, as fascinating and important to them as it is, is singing. They think that it may only be "piping" and perhaps it is her childishness (as she reflects simple attitudes of her people back to them) that is attractive: "Here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of the usual thing." Josephine demands freedom from the labor quota of the mouse people. But no matter how much they love or worship her they will not free her from the work law. Josephine disappears — perhaps has gone into hiding — to force people to accept her demands. Anyone interested in Dylan and/or poetry should look at the piece.

I thought of the creation of a demigod and prophet that took place in the multicolored spotlights and amplification and banks of stagelights — better known to the modern world than Plato or Confucius or Buddha; watched by thousands with millions wishing to see him in other cities. One can become a statue of one's self, mimicking what one is in eternity. Immortality (or its substitute) can be turned off and on and directed by voice over wires and captured on disks of black plastic. There is the possibility that the background has swallowed up the object and that we are in the process of whiting-out. If so, I think we stand in need of it.

"Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be the expression of the imagination; and poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an everchanging wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them . . ."

Said Shelley in 1821 in A Defense of Poetry.

This is a story from the March 14, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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