Friday, July 18, 2008

Assessing Bob Dylan & Dancing About Architecture

Germane Greer does not think Bob Dylan is a great lyricist; or rather, she thinks William Blake was a better lyricist; or she thinks Morrissey is a better lyricist; or she thinks Woody Guthrie was a better lyricist; or she is still upset that Bob Dylan kept his fans waiting at a show in 1969; or she is tired of students wanting to study Dylan's lyrics instead of Donne's or Yeats' poetry. Or something.

I think Bob Dylan is a great lyricist. I also think Morrissey, Woody Guthrie, and William Blake are great lyricists, and I admire much of the poetry of Yeats and Donne. I see no reason to rank them; it probably helps that I'm not having to make decisions about a course syllabus. Supposing I had to rank them, what would I say to prove the ranking? What would I say to support my view that these men deserve inclusion on the syllabus? I could say a lot of things in support of such claims -- one can build an entire academic career on claims and counterclaims about what's canonical and what isn't, but that doesn't make it a good idea. I do heartily agree with this statement from Greer:

The other aspect of a lyric is its mystery. A lyric does not explain itself, nor does it tell a story, except by implication. Blake's song is an invocation, to whom or what we do not know.
I think that's spot-on, although I don't quite accept it as stated; I acknowledge no Iron Law of Lyrics that demands that they be mysterious and non-self-explanatory and evocative rather than narrative. Not that these are exclusive categories in the first place: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner leaps to mind as being both narrative and evocative, and it has been put to song multiple times.

Greer then praises the way Morrissey entwines music with lyrics to produce an emergent whole, concluding with this:
To present the words without the music is to emasculate them.
I agree yet again, and it's difficult to think of a clearer case of emasculating words by presenting them without music than the very same piece, in which Greer quotes words and words alone from Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna":
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish-trucks that loads
While my conscience explodes ...
Presented as words alone, bereft of the emotional moment established in the song, yes, these may not be among the seven most elegant lines of poetry in English. But they also don't grate nearly as badly as Greer wants them to, or so it seems to me.

In sum: we agree, we agree, we agree, we agree, and we fundamentally disagree. So goes writing about music and dancing about architecture. Maybe it's best to leave these questions of aesthetic judgment to the Instant Art Critique Generator, which assesses Dylan as a lyricist thusly, using only his date of birth (41524 for 1941 May 24):
I agree/disagree with some of the things that have just been said, but the sublime beauty of the purity of line contextualize the inherent overspecificity.
Indeed.

(via Norm)

1 comment:

Jan Sevastakis said...

Bob is Bob ,why can't the world of intellectual design just get over it,and quit all the stupidity in comparing him to anyone?