Some years, after I began teaching and writing with great intensity, I volunteered for the further immersion of being a literacy tutor in Pittsylvania County, Virginia—a large rural county in Southside with an unusually high rate of illiteracy. I was assigned to work with Cecil, a man in his mid-fifties who worked in a local lumber mill. Cecil’s goal was to be able to read the stock-car results in the paper. He had never learned the alphabet. So we began.
After the first session, he asked the most basic and, for me, profound question. We’d been talking about recognizing and memorizing the letters, and, following my instruction manual, I dutifully taught him that we have two kinds or categories of letters, consonants and vowels. So, Cecil looked up and asked what the difference was. Difference? What’s the difference between vowels and consonants? I don’t think I’d ever thought about it, not as an adult anyway, and if I had thought about it as a child, I was, as most children are, just learning what I was told. AEIOU, right, sometimes Y.
But after a few minutes, it came to me that a difference at least is that you need your teeth, tongue, and lips to "sound" consonants, and you don’t need them for vowels. Cecil was satisfied with that, and we returned to the lesson.
Later, on the drive home, though, the obvious came to me with stark rawness: letters are symbols for sound we make with our physical bodies. We evolved and agreed to order these sounds in an extremely sophisticated way, and that’s what writing is, an agreed-upon ordering of these symbols for sound.
My adult reaction to the obvious brought me back to Dickinson’s famous "The brain is wider than the sky" poem with added excitement about the word choice of brain—not mind, but brain, the physical place of the mind and the place with real, tangible heft in the physical reality of the world. I also thought again about Dickinson’s famous quote: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."
Dickinson’s poem and her reaction to poetry became all the more amazing—and relevant—because her response to poetry is not intellectual, not of the pure mind but physical, of the brain as it is indivisible from the body.
We all know that poetry is not one thing; the spectrum from lyric to narrative in the category of "poem" is vast and encompasses much; so, too, the spectrum of formal to freer verse. The same goes for song, for music itself. So some of the ongoing discussions and debates about whether or not this or that song is also a poem, or this or that songwriter is also a poet intrigue and vex me in equal parts because I haven’t felt the attraction to debating the borders of genre, or, more important, to making some definitive decision about the topic My thinking about the separation of poetry from music—and from song, regardless of various similarities, was and continues to be greatly influenced by H. T. Kirby-Smith, my former teacher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He introduces his brilliant book The Celestial Twins, Poetry and Music through the Ages (University of Massachusetts Press 1999) in part by suggesting that while we should consider poetry’s "indebtedness to music," we must also recognize its decisive "separation from it".
After all, there will be, regardless of genre or artistic medium, places of intersection, genre blurring; there have been and will continue be places where a certain song will share characteristics with a poem, where a long poem will share much with a short story, where a poem could be and will be "set"—after its conception as poem—to music. And I hope there will continue to be obviously distinct genres that make the shifting interstices so compelling.
Songs are, for the most part, obviously different from a great number of poems because songs are blatantly physical, meant to be heard—nodded and danced to, learned, reinterpreted through performance, etc. They are meant to be remembered—memorized—for their words and musical progressions, their rhythms and chords, all integral part of the song’s meaning. I have never really thought that the genre of song is made of words and music; the two, whatever the order of their genesis, are ultimately fused—one creation.
The "music" of the poem is far more subtle, the measures inherent in English’s (as well as other languages’) accentual syllabic system. Unlike the songwriter, the more formal poet will create according to a prescribed measure, but will, for the most part, pray you will not think to tap your foot to it and instead will feel most accomplished when you don’t even notice the measure at first. Despite the fixed forms that require repetition (villanelle, sestina, etc.), poems often work best to the contemporary ear when they don’t repeat as blatant part of their construction, but succeed as something more linguistically understated.
Edgar Allan Poe in his famous "The Poetic Principle" writes about the concept of a poem’s impression, insisting a long poem cannot make a lyric impression, that, in fact, "‘a long poem’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms"—while also warning that a poem can be too short and unrealized, failing to make "a profound or enduring…effect."
Despite my realization all those years ago that letters are symbols for sound, I had to remind myself too that for a long time the symbols of text were not common or shared; for centuries, many more people like Cecil were illiterate and the production of shared texts rare. What creates impression in older, oral poetic works, then, crafted to be heard, would logically share more with the elements of song that create impression, or make any work memorable.
Many of us credit Bob Dylan for the multi-faceted importance of his art, for its political, social, spiritual, and musical relevance, for its groundbreaking innovation as well as for its many allusions to musicians and poets who came before him. It’s no wonder then that many of us continue to be drawn to the study of this body of work in our desire for greater understanding of it. Another essay in this collection, Gordon Ball’s "A Nobel for Dylan," for one example, discusses how Dylan’s work should be considered for a Nobel in literature even though that prize is primarily reserved for novels and poetry.
Dylan is a songwriter often tagged as a poet, and the words to some of his songs have often been anthologized as poems, though he didn’t create them that way or release them into the world as poems. Again, whatever argument people want to make about it they are certainly free to do, but I don’t see why I would want—besides for the sake of studying a part of a whole—to separate out the text from its music and insist that it belongs in one category over another.
Still, as an admirer of Dylan’s longer songs, I have noticed that in many of them (some more and some less narrative), he employs ordering principles that are less traditionally song-like and instead hearken back to quite ancient oral-formulaic traditions that work to create the "impression" Poe is looking for—lyric constructions that accomplish a narrative impression, or an emotional one—without relying much on chorus or even musical progression and repetition to make the song memorable.
The measure in some of Dylan’s longer songs, such as "Masters of War," "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall," "Desolation Row," "Visions of Johanna," "Tangled up in Blue," and "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," to name a few, connotes the Anglo Saxon, with a recurring pattern of alliteration, consonance, or assonance woven within the lines in addition to the expected end-rhyme we look for in songs; and while not employed with the deliberate regularity of the accentual meter in Beowulf, the pattern is regular and discernible enough to effect Poe’s desired impression, and make the song memorable despite its lack of the typical strategies of most songs—the mnemonic elements that, regardless of sub-categories (country, soul, pop, etc.), many songs share: rhyme, refrain, chorus, bridge, a "hook" repeated often—all working with the connotations of key and rhythm, minor keys more somber, the polka rhythm festive, etc. Such Dylan songs are not merely long, they are word-rich, so that without the patterning of sound, the brain would have too little to hold on to for the song to be memorable past its melody or a phrase here and there.
Again, thinking back to that long-ago lesson with Cecil, I realize that memorability is not only an act of the intellect, but also of muscle memory, the brain finding pleasing the repeating movements of the fingers on the keys or strings, or the tongue on the back of the teeth or the roof of the mouth.
For one example "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" (1975) is long (8:50) and narrative, a puzzler, a mystery. There are a lot of players and much action. While the verses are made up of tightly rhyming couplets, the song employs no refrain or any chorus except variations on the "Jack of Hearts" that closes each verse and rhymes only itself. The melody, while compelling, creates part of the song’s impression by way of simplicity—its measures falling within a limited range, the urgent tempo important part of the song’s driving suspense. But more important to this song’s memorability is the distinct patterning of sound within the lines. Look at the first two lines of the fifth verse:
Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town,
She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown.
The repeating hard "c" of "combed" in the first line sounds in the back of the line in "carriage" which also rhymes internally with "hair," followed by "took" pairing with "town." In the second line, "slipped" resonates with "side" as "queen" does with "crown."
She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear,
"Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late," but he didn’t seem to hear.
Continuing in a similar fashion, "fluttered" echoes "false" which anticipates "lashes," and the first syllable of "whispered" can be heard gently to rhyme with "his"—while in the next line, "darlin’" obviously waits for the balancing "didn’t."
While there are many places throughout the song where we can find patterned alliteration and assonance, there are also more subtle instances of patterned consonance. The first two lines of the seventh verse offer an example:
Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child,
She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled.
Notice that "princess" quite obviously looks for "precious," but the "s" and "sh" also resound in "skinned" and "precious." Similarly, in addition to the obvious patterning of initial consonants in the second line of this verse, the first "she" after the caesura finds itself in the final letters of "flash."
Of course, any skilled poet or songwriter will use patterned sound inside the lines to pull the ear away from strong end-stops or too many exact rhymes, most preferring a joining of sound akin to a dovetail or mortise and tenon effect over the driven nail of too-obvious end rhyme. But in this case, the technique is so audible throughout, I am persuaded it is a key part of the song’s mnemonic strategy, and not simple variation.
In addition to the patterning of sound that connotes the ancestral accentual measure, Dylan employs the mid-line caesura also characteristic of the older verse. Whether or not he places his repeating sounds neatly on either side of it, Dylan regularly crafts a caesura, "cutting" or pausing the line with a comma or coordinating conjunction. The ninth verse opens with two good examples among the many, the first line seesawing on "and" and the second on its middle comma:
Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife,
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife.
Surely those compelled to argue that Dylan is a poet, or more poet than songwriter, mean to compliment, assigning the designation as an artistic elevation from songwriter (with or without apologies to the songwriters whom I do not consider lesser in their otherness). And of course, it’s always writing that will withstand close study that attracts the attentions of such readers.
And yet, I am most impressed in the end that those with little background in the study of poetry have also been drawn again and again into linguistically complex songs to be influenced, inspired, entertained, and delighted with the songs despite perhaps not recognizing the underlying poetic strategies, even as they most certainly understand them. We don’t have to know how an engine works to understand driving a car with great skill and confidence—and joy.
Dylan’s songs will continue to be examined for their "poetry"—and for whatever makes people talk about the particular multifaceted lens that is poetry, I am ever grateful. Part of Dylan’s impact for me lies in the ways he can situate his songs at the point where song forever departed from poetry and in so doing, keep alive the vestigial imprint of older poetic traditions.
Cecil learned to read. When he and I stopped working together, he could comprehend at the third grade level, and enjoyed reading about the stock car race he had often watched on television just the day before. But the happiest I ever saw him was the day he arrived to tell me that after all the years he had driven the road from Pelham, North Carolina, where he had lived his entire life, to his job in Chatham, Virginia, he had been able to read the sign that said Pelham. He had been able to sound it out. The ability to read what he already knew changed nothing in one sense, every muscle in his body having learned the way, and yet, in a most vital sense, that place was made new to him in another understanding of it: the syllable from the sound.
Reprinted from The Poetics of American Song Lyrics by permission of the University Press of Mississippi. An earlier version appeared in The Asheville Poetry Review. Copyright @ 2012 by Claudia Emerson.