50. (Bob Dylan)

The necessary disclaimer: Dylan is not a poet, for though his intelligent care for words is continuous with that of the best, the words are parts of songs.

Which is why a published and edited edition of the lyrics is a critical as well as curatorial act: it directs the attention, as does criticism, to patterns and puzzles that we might otherwise not have noticed.

As a sixteen-year old novice fan of Dylan, in a summer house without much by way of internet, or without my realizing I would find what I needed there, I sought to memorize the lyrics of “Visions of Johanna” and decided the best way to do so would be to write them down for myself: doing so, what I had already heard, probably a few dozen times by then, came into new focus: the extended sequence of rhymes (seven) building to the final coda: “showed…corrode…flowed…road…owed…loads…explodes.” My head was exploding.

A year later, seventeen, between Year 12 and Year 13 at the International School, I was in a different house, on the same island, through a rainy stretch of summer weeks, writing an extended essay on Dylan’s lyrics, arriving at a similar thrill as I transcribed the lyrics to “Mr Tambourine Man” and saw the swelling of the lines and stanzas with each repeated verse.

Doubtless many Dylan fans have seen the same and felt something similar, whether when transcribing, or when reading the lyrics online or in one of the earlier editions.

But perhaps many only look for the printed lyrics to corroborate or correct the words that they hear.

Edited by Christopher Ricks, Lisa Nemrow, and Julie Nemrow, the new edition of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, The Lyrics. (with an article before, because it is only those, and with a full-stop after because it is determined to be only those) is a work of editorial and critical shrewdness in that it provides both sorts of Dylan’s listeners with what they need.

For those who have not noticed the shapes of the songs, it insists that they do so. For those of us who have noticed the shapes of the songs, it serves as a reminder that we have not seen their shapes in fullness or accuracy; they they are shapelier than we might have thought, and that their shapes have significance that we likely missed.

The key decision of the editors, critical as much as editorial, has been to set the lyrics on the page with indentations corresponding to the rhyme scheme. Dylan, kin to the poets as he is, early perceived the creative potential of rhyme, a musical equivalent to the form of punctuation unique to poetry, the line-ending. Indenting the lines on the page according to the rhyme scheme by which they run, the editors show us Dylan’s creative genius with the resource. The results are surprising in two ways: the line-endings appear where we might not expect them, and the indentations show at a glance how the songs are patterned according to intricately overlapping and interlocking rhyme schemes.

I was most startled by the song, from Another Side of Bob Dylan, “To Ramona” [For reasons of site formatting, I have had to include full-stops before lines to ensure indentations were preserved]:


I can see that your head 

Has been twisted and fed

. . . . . With worthless foam from the mouth

. . . . . I can tell you are torn between staying and returning back to the South

. . . . . . . . .You’ve been fooled into thinking

. . . . . . . . .That the finishing

. . . . . . . . . . . .End is at hand

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Yet there’s no one to beat you

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .No one to defeat you

. . . . . . . . . . . ‘Cept the thought of yourself feeling bad


The editors’ decision entails not simply setting off couplets from tercets etc, but of indenting each couplet, provided it has a different rhyme. But–look at the lines above: not each couplet does have a common rhyme. “Thinking” does not, for instance, rhyme neatly with “finishing.”

But the pattern has been established earlier in the song, in corresponding lines (“breathlike”/”deathlike”; “love”/”part of”). The editors’ indentations urge us to see that Dylan is not simply dropping or skewing or skewering the rhyme in the third verse of the song—but he is varying it against an established norm: we are urged to see the near-rhyme and to see how differently the rhyme occurs elsewhere in these lines.

For those of us who delight inordinately in rhymes, their patterns, their purposes, the layout of the song provides a treasure: it facilitates our grasping what we want most to grasp.

What becomes of the “mouth”/”South” rhyme in the following verse?

Those lines, in their entirety:


. . . . .From fixtures

. . . . .And forces


Here there is no real rhyme—and yet the editors preserve the line-breaks both because that unit of rhyme has been established in every other verse, making this a significant variation, and also because the words “fixtures” and “forces” are joined otherwise, by alliteration, and by sense, where fixtures are maintained and threatened by forces.

Because we are asked to treat rhymes as line-endings, we can see how powerfully Dylan punctuates the sung word:  “That the finishing | End is at hand”. Not a couplet, these lines straddle, or transition between, two couplets, and do so with relished wordplay: “Finishing” does not finish the line; the “end” is a beginning,and one that is caught up in “hand.”

I will not give away too much of what is in the collection; but I will note one very different moment, when the surprise comes not from the breaks in the lines, but from the absence of breaks. Here is the first stanza in the transcription of “Blind Willie McTell”:


Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying, “This land is condemned

All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem”

. . .I travelled through East Texas where many martyrs fell

. . .And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell


One of the most astonishing features of the very astonishing performance by Dylan, as recorded on The Bootleg Series, is that the momentum that the vocal gathers through the verses. There are strong pauses in the vocals in the middle of the first and third lines of each stanza. The temptation would be to transcribe the lines otherwise:


Seen the arrow on the doorpost 

Saying “This land is condemned

All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem

I travelled through east Texas 

Where many martyr fell

And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.


Or even breaking “All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” into two lines: “All the way from New Orleans | To Jerusalem,” and doing the same with the final line of each stanza.

But because of their allegiance to the principal that their line-breaks will follow Dylan’s preferred punctuation, rhyme, the editors of The Lyrics. show us something in and of Dylan’s delivery that we might have missed: that the pause in the middle of the first and third lines is held variously from stanza to stanza, and that sometimes Dylan emerges from the pause with more, sometimes with less, vocal momentum.’

To transcribe these lines otherwise would be to reduce the chances of our recognizing—as I had never before recognized—an essential source of Dylan’s vocal ingenuity: the tension between lags, hesitations, and surges of vocal strength, and the shapes of the stanzas, which are repeated and fixed in their patterns of rhyme scheme (even where, as in “Visions of Johanna,” Dylan adds additional lines to any portion of the pattern). The same tension works quite differently here from in “To Ramona,” where the steadiness of the song’s delivery, its insistent metrical chant, belies the staggered stanza shapes and abrupt line-breaks (“And” and “Friend” are poised against one another, a single couplet, one word per line).

We didn’t need more proof of Dylan’s genius; but now we have proof of another side of it.


5 thoughts on “50. (Bob Dylan)

  1. is Shakespeare not a poet cause he wrote stanza’s for theater? and Homerus cause he neve wrote a word of his recited poem? when will these foolish categorizations end? for the rest an insightful piece of crticism, proving just the opposite of it’s first assumption… Dylan is among the greatest of poets and yes some of his writing is below par just as not everything by Shakespeare is worth reading, or should I say hearing… you know, poetry started being sung by the ancients… sigh

    1. Dylan’s poetry is essentially musical. The apprehension of its meaning is primarily an aural, rather than a literary experience. Sure, it can be transcribed to a printed page (more or less accurately) but a page is not the original, or most complete form of it.

      Dylan’s songs cannot be fully separated from the performance of them. This makes them quite distinct from most “Western” poetry, which has evolved into a primarily written, or visual art form.

      Of course Dylan’s work can be defined as “poetry”. But in so defining it, one must broaden the category to include much that is not strictly literary.

      1. Your reasoning here is quite correct, but indeed I would like to broaden the category. we should maybe leave the term Western poetry behind us… But that’s just a humble opinion…

  2. Thanks. Really enjoyed reading this canny post. Looking forward to further reading here. The book is a treasure. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (several Bob posts).

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