Bookends: Bob Dylan: Musician or Poet?

By Dana Stevens

Dylan’s songs are primal and modern, poetic and cinematic. Many consciously aspire to the condition of literature.

Dana Stevens
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Dana Stevens

Like the handful of artists in whose company he belongs, Bob Dylan takes the notion of genre and cheerfully chucks it into the wood chipper. Is Shakespeare a poet or a dramatist — or, to descend into the smaller subcategories into which genre can never seem to stop fracturing, a comedian, a tragedian or a historian? Did Buster Keaton leave his mark primarily as an actor, a director, a stuntman or a clown? When Michael Jackson performed the moonwalk on television for the first time, did the crowd go into rapture because of his dancing, singing, songwriting or choreography?

Creative activity at a certain level renders genre categorization moot. Or rather, it pushes “genre” back toward its origin in an Indo-European root denoting procreation, “engendering” in the most literal sense. Dylan’s songs at their best seem to originate from some primal foundry of creation, a Devil’s crossroads where Delta blues, British folk ballads, French Symbolism and Beat poetry (to name only a few of his early influences) converge and fuse.

But his music reaches forward in time, toward more modern art forms, as well. There’s something distinctly cinematic, for example, in the crosscutting and temporal leaps of a narrative ballad like “Tangled Up in Blue,” which compresses a feature film’s worth of images, locations and encounters into four and a half minutes of bravura storytelling. If it’s a kind of sung movie, “Tangled Up in Blue” is one that, like so many Dylan compositions, consciously aspires to the condition of literature. In one verse, an erudite topless-bar waitress hands the first-person narrator — or in some versions of the song, a third-person stand-in — a life-changing volume of verse by “an Italian poet / From the 13th century.”

“I wasn’t yet the poet musician that I would become,” Dylan writes of his early folk-singing days in his memoir “Chronicles: Volume 1” (a vivid, surprisingly chatty book that nonetheless manages to disclose almost nothing about its strategically elliptical author, and that points to yet another potential career path: Dylan as prose writer). But elsewhere he has repudiated both those roles, most famously in a 1965 press conference in which — asked the same question that appears above this column — he laughed and replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.”

That modesty, false or not, hasn’t kept us from trying to understand for the past five decades just what, exactly, Bob Dylan is, or from throwing ever-heavier symbolic mantles over his bony shoulders: prophet, shaman, enigma, bard. The more he evades definition, the more grandiose the titles we devise, all the while romanticizing his ability to keep us at a permanent distance. His very undecidability as a cultural figure — the sense that we, and he, haven’t quite grasped what he’s up to — is a mark of how much Dylan has given us as a — well, as whatever kind of artist he is. It’s too early to perceive the full scope of his contribution, and he’s not done changing yet.

The title of his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” seems funny 50 years and countless recordings later: How could we have known then that the man would turn out to have more sides than a mirrored disco ball? But it’s Dylan’s vision of his role as primarily that of an entertainer, a “song and dance man,” that perhaps drives the nonstop touring that’s dominated his life for the past two and a half decades. (Since 1988, he’s averaged more than 100 shows a year, with the longest stretch off the road only three consecutive months during a health scare in 1997.) For at least a decade, Dylan’s stage manager has introduced nearly every show with a florid, possibly ironic short speech identifying the singer as “the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of ‘60s counterculture.” Then the poet comes out and does his song and dance.

Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.

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By Francine Prose

Dylan is the unlikely offspring of Rimbaud and Whitman. But he’s neither Rimbaud nor Whitman.

Francine Prose
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Francine Prose

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