Monday, August 18, 2008

Is Bob Dylan a poet, asks Bill Knott?

Look what just turned up! Long-lost Bob Dylan poems!

By coinkydink, here's an excerpt from Bill Knott's blog:

"hey, you're a billionaire, and you're this supposed POET——

people (many people) call you a POET——

senile academics write books about your so-called POETRY——

even poets (some poets, not me) call you a POET——

you're a billionaire POET,

but you don't support the Academy of American Poets

or other poetry organizations——



okay, all you poets (print poets) who like to call Bod McDylan a POET——

consider this:

imagine there were a poet, call her X, a print poet like you, who had

as much money as he does——

wouldn't you expect her, Ms. X, to financially support the PSA or the Poetry Foundation et al
and or provide funding for small magazines and presses?——

in fact, wouldn't you demand that of her?——wouldn't you feel she was spiritually and professionally

obliged to do it?

but you don't demand it of BD, do you——

if you want to posit him as a POET, alright, okay: but in that case i demand that you demand from him the same benefice you would expect from X——

you can't have it both ways, hypocrites——

You can't have him be a POET, and then exempt him from the obligations you would ask of any print poet in his income bracket..."


And... check out the debate about Dylan-as-poet in the zillions of comments on the Guardian site; wow.

Hm, I guess Bill doesn't really believe that pop lyrics are real poetry (most folks over the age of 22 probably don't, either, though I'm sure people can get a feeling of true spiritual exaltation from the tunes they enjoy), so the point must be about the money: fair enough.

As for Dylan: I only skimmed Chronicles - having devoted a chunk of my life to poetry at Harvard, I just loved the bit about old Archie MacLeish, I must say - but I relented on my own version of Bill's rant after I looked through the thing. Dylan is as plausibly affected by his reading of poetry as the next guy, and makes no special claims, himself. Christopher Ricks aside (and full disclosure: he was my dissertation advisor), the debate about whether he's a poet or not takes me way, way back, though. I mean, Dean [of Rock Criticism] Robert Christgau laid some of this to rest in 1967! When I was in junior high school, I got a worn-down book out of the library that had rock-lyrics-as-poetry in it, you know, Simon & Garfunkel, Procol Harum, The Beatles, that sort of thing, with poems by Real Poets, e.g., Tennyson and Browning, on facing pages. It read pretty badly as a poetry anthology, but I loved having the lyrics to songs so I could learn 'em. Heck, what kid wouldn't want to go around telling people "I am a rock, I am an island," John Donne or no? So I went on to writing my own really awful songs, being in a band, and thinking about being a millionaire rock star some day. I ended up in enough bands to discover how unlikely that prospect was. Still, the whole experience taught me tons more about prosody than you can get in a "creative writing" program. I wasn't an English major, but have never been confused about lyrics-as-poetry because, as everyone knows, lyrics are lyrics and go with a tune while poems have to stand up and fight for themselves with little more than what Basil Bunting called thumps. It's pretty simple, Wyn Cooper's stroke of literal good fortune notwithstanding.

They still come up with those lyric-as-poetry anthologies, but you'll learn more from things like Ezra Pound's attachment to the troubadours and Tom Pickard's incredible ballads. I don't care much whether Dylan, Jewel, Lou Reed (who studied with my hero Delmore Schwartz), Billy Childish, Paul McCartney, Jeff Tweedy, Billy Corgan or any of those folks support poetry directly or think of themselves as poets. I care that maybe they read poetry, and, having tried their hand at it, find out how hard it is and... for sure they'll learn how much less lucrative it is to write verse than to be a rock star; if I'm a fan, I only care that their music doesn't suck. Otherwise, let's face it: as Allen Ginsberg teaches Dylan in the clip above, even Keats' name was writ on water. And what po-biz really needs, maybe more than infusions of what we Memphians call "cash money," is its own version of Lester Bangs.

P.S. Guess what Madonna got for her 50th birthday? Yep. And how could I fail to mention Paul Muldoon's band?

P.P.S. For further study, see this issue of Vanitas, which has a "popular music" theme.

P.P.P.S. Looks like Bill has taken down the post. I regret this. And lastly: here's what Obama and McCain think of popular music!


Michael Robbins said...

Don, plenty of folk over the age of 22 think of pop lyricists as poets. My own adviser, Bob von Hallberg, writes about the Coasters & Cole Porter as well as Sappho & Celan. I know a number of folks approaching middle age (as I am) who take my thoughts on hip-hop lyrics seriously, & Dylan's a no-brainer. I think that the musical context raises some questions about how this form of poetry differs from what Knott hilariously calls "print poetry" - but remember that Knott despises music as such. I believe I've heard him say he doesn't listen to any music at all. He posted some anti-music quotation on Harriet awhile ago. That, to me, is far, far weirder & more tragic than doubting Dylan's po-cred. But Knott's sort of the Zizek of unread poetry, a provocateur. I think he's fantastic. Only yesterday I was browsing his online catalog & came across this amazing stanza (worthy of Dylan, now I think of it):

Human was just a bridge to cross.
Raise a glass to his late loss.
All hail that great Rilke spiel:
to make the earth invisible!
Skoal. Let's get rid of it for real.
Fuck is it anyway but fuel.

Michael Robbins said...

By the way, last year I finally spent the bucks on Dylan & the Band's complete basement tapes, available on the perfect bootleg A Tree with Roots, & it reminds me that Dylan is also a poet in Shelley's sense: "Poets, or those who imagine & express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language & of music, of the dance & architecture & statuary & painting: they are [those] who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful & the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion."

(also, when I say approaching middle age I mean I'm in my thirties. I'm vain enough to want that on the record.)

Don Share said...

I know Cole Porter et al. are in the Library of America anthology of 20th-c. Am Po, but I find all that completely unconvincing. I like apples and I like oranges, but I'd never argue that they grow on the same trees. That's just me, and I'm speaking as a music fanatic who finds the lyrics to "You Really Got Me" to be ravishingly zen-like and indispensible and the musings of Pete Townshend to be completely sublime. For that matter, my ears and heart find poetry in the sound of Monk, Coltrane, and Bechet - but not poems.

Don Share said...

Funny thing. I'm not much of a Dylan fan, but I make big exceptions for the "Basement Tapes," "Watching the River Flow" and almost all of the "Love and Theft" album.

I'd say that with regard to "Love and Theft" in particular Dylan has achieved at last a kind of wit and wistfulness that John Ashbery of all people - at his best - has had for decades.

Bill Knott said...

. . . you're evading the questions i raised in my post about money —— the whole post was about money, but you and Robbins are responding to one little parenthetical detail! (which i'm going to delete)
. . . if Ashbery were a billionaire like Dylan, are you going to tell me that you and other poets WOULDN'T expect him to donate funds to poetry institutions and to subsidize small press activities, that he wouldn't be pressured to provide such???
what about all those millionaire hiphops whose "poetry" Robbins is always gushing over, are they funding fellowships scholarships for poets like him? and if they aren't, why aren't they?

Michael Robbins said...

Bill (now I'm responding to you on Don's blog),
I can think of a thousand things I'd rather see Dylan or rappers or any superrich folk do with their $$ than give it to poetry foundations.

Like donate it to Oxfam or PETA or Human Rights Watch or the Red Cross or Unicef or the World Wildlife Fund.

I don't know to what extent they do so. But I have the same problem with the way they spend their money that I have with rich people's habits in general: the money shouldn't be their to spend in the first place. Personally, I think Dylan's entire fortune should be forcibly redistributed to West Africans. But I think that about everyone else's fortune too. Poetry is pretty far down on my list of things that need money thrown at them.

Don Share said...

I focused on the other stuff, admittedly - but didn't evade the money question which I answered, albeit briefly.

Just speaking for myself, I wouldn't expect Ashbery, were he a billioniaire, to give anybody a cent... any more than I'd expect Dylan to do so. That's not to say that they wouldn't - and for all I know, maybe they have done so.

Side note. I recognized a famous rock musician and Dylan sidekick when I was working, in my thirties, as a busboy at a Cambridge, Mass. cafe. I can tell you he didn't give me a scholarship! I got a good tonguelashing for my timid thanks for his work, though.

Andrew Shields said...

I first started writing poems regularly around 1983 or so, in a free-verse mode under the influence of Denise Levertov (CW teacher at Stanford). And I started writing songs regularly around 1985. For a long time, the two modes were quite separate for me: songs were in rhyme and meter, and poems weren't. In the mid-nineties, though, the boundary began to blur a bit, as I began to write more and more poems in meter (rhymed and unrhymed). For me, now, the only identifiable difference between verse written to be a song and verse that is not going to become a song is simple: if the verses contain a lot of enjambment, it's hard to make them a singable song, because it's hard to write melodies that won't ignore the lineation. But if the verses don't have a lot of enjambment, then they can easily be made into a song, if I find a good melody and chords.

Ms Baroque said...

Woohoo, the gang's all here! See, Don, it's just - ROOMIER. I mean Harriet's nice, but it's like a show flat, you have to keep it nice; this is like, let's get a pizza.

I'm with Bill, really, and Don I think. Well I've blogged on the POP LYRICS ARE NOT POETRY thing many times. The Cole Porter lyrics were released here as poetry, and reviewed somewhere or other - they got a terrible, awful review! It just isn't the same, and of course as songs they are sublime.

The point about the money is just about engaging with the community, really, isn't it. Giving something back. In a different way, but the same veein (as it were) it echoes the outcry two years ago over Stephen Fry's arch little guide to prosody, "An Ode Less Travelled" - in which he called contemporary poetry "arse dribble" and said that of course he does write poetry, but that he'd never dream of inflicting it on anyone else through publication.

But then, Dylan isn't making any great claims... well but it still isn't poetry. As such.

michael robbins said...

I think anyone who really believes that "pop lyrics aren't poetry" really needs to grapple w/ Ricks's Dylan's Visions of Sin, which might be overwritten in places but is pretty unanswerable as poetry criticism.

I mean, what, it's not poetry because it's got guitars?

"As songs they are sublime" seems to me just to say "this is a different form of poetry." I don't think the lyrics should be divorced from the music, but that don't make them not-poetry (or e'en Knott-poetry).

Don Share said...

I've known, loved, & admired Christopher Ricks and his work for over two decades, but Dylan's Visions of Sin doesn't get me a-grapple at all.

"It's not poetry" because it's not poetry. It's music with words. That doesn't mean it's inferior; it means it's not the same thing.

Q., possibly, E.D.

Frank Giampietro said...

Did anyone else notice that Ginsberg got the quotation wrong for what's printed on Keats' grave? Ginsberg said, ". . . whose FAME was writ in water." What a great freudian slip considering who he was talking to.

Bill Knott said...

it's fine with me if you want to categorize what these songwriters produce

as poetry——

that argument or debate, i repeat, was not the point of my post——

if Robbins and others want to include song lyrics in the realm of verse,

that's fine, that's okay with me, i'm not going to disagree with them——

but if they are poets, then they should support poetry . . . and poets:

how much money did Neil Young send to Dale Smith to pass on to Tom Clark in his exigency of need?——

Robbins' SocialistPlanet vision is an airyfairy non-answer evasion of the questions i raised——

yes, ideally such equal distribution of wealth is a desideratum, and i hope it happens in his lifetime (it won't in mine),

but in the meanwhile there are all these poets (himself included, i presume) who could use some support . . .

if he or anybody else wants to call these songwriters poets, fine with me——

but if they're poets, then they should have as much a responsibility to the poetry community as you or i would given their income . . .

Don Share said...

Fair points, Bill. I'm coming around. I'd add Tom Disch to the list, too.

By the way, I mentioned Tom Pickard, who wrote in to say:

"I've got no argument with Bill's about money being re-distributed. Re lyric as poetry;- Allen Ginsberg long ago gave me a copy of 'The Blues Line' compiled by Eric Sackheim, and I continually refer to it for pleasure and measure (as poetry) along with the Border Ballads."

Bill Knott said...

. . . from my perspective every penny that Ugly Duckling gets from their munificent donors

would be better spent helping to alleviate poverty anyeverywhere,

but is that likely to happen soon——

and, really, Robbins, isn't it the gang YOU root for that needs these privateer funds?——

the team I root for doesn't NEED the funding that the pubs in your league do,

because the (rah rah) fans actually monetarily support the Billy Collins club (hooray) . . .

maybe you should pray some of those rockrappers you call poets shed a few shekels of their pelf to help UDP or Fence or Post-Apollo et al pay for your book of post-apres poems . . .

michael robbins said...

pish. as I sd on Harriet, I am no more a booster of neosillimanisms than you are. I don't write w/in any a-g tradition, & my latest review, coming out in Poetry, is of Frank Bidart & Marianne Boruch, among others not remotely affililated w/ experimentalist verse.

what I am is completely opposed to dismissing any form of writing because it's "obscure" or "incomprehensible" or, on the other hand, because it's "mainstream" or "academic." I don't believe in these categories. these categories bore me. I'm writing on Paul Muldoon at the moment, & Robert Lowell, & Frederick Seidel. but I also love Rodefer & Coolidge, Lisa Jarnot & William Fuller, Jennifer Moxley & Tom Raworth. not that any of the above have all that much in common.

it ain't my fault if you got the impression I have a "team" I "root for" -- you'd have to believe in the absurd "two camps" thesis in the first place to reach that conclusion. me, I read poetry.

as for the money question, sure, poets shd get money from whoever. but it's not something that gets me exercised.