May 30, 2013

Bob Dylan, Poet

See my flash fiction in Dandelion Review, "Handful of Rain."

Bob Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, and every year, this small town on the Iron Range holds a festival called Dylan Days to advance the arts and celebrate Bob Dylan. Last Friday night, Zimmy's Restaurant hosted the singer/songwriter event.  Because I was invited to keynote the awards for the writing competition and to teach a creative writing workshop, I did some research on his lyrics he wrote to discuss his techniques and find inspiration.  

In 1991, “The Song Talk Interview,” Paul Zollo said: “There's an unmistakable elegance in Dylan's words, an almost biblical beauty that he has sustained in his songs throughout the years. He refers to it as a "gallantry" in the following, and pointed to it as the single thing that sets his songs apart from others. Though he's maybe more famous for the freedom and expansiveness of his lyrics, all of his songs possess this exquisite care and love for the language. As Shakespeare and Byron did in their times, Dylan has taken English, perhaps the world's plainest language, and instilled it with a timeless, mythic grace.”  

From this interview, I've excerpted Dylan's responses about song-writing that reflect good poetic technique:  

1.  As an artist, Dylan said it was his job to "sing out against darkness wherever he sees it -- to 'tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it' until his lungs burst."

2.  About his own songwriting, Dylan said,"for me, it’s always been more con-fessional than pro-fessional.” 

3.  “...write about what's true, what's been proven to you, write about dreams but not fantasies.”

4.  “Just talking to somebody that ain't there. That's the best way. That's the truest way. Then it just becomes a question of how heroic your speech is. To me, it's something to strive after.”

5.  “Well, to me, when you need [songs], they appear. Your life doesn't have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That's why a lot of people, me myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who's never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.”  

6.  “There's just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them.”

As a poet, I prize his narratives. They are spare and full of exact detail.  Singing against darkness is clear when he wrote songs of protest, but the singing against darkness can also be seen songs like Mr Tambourine Man, Visions of Johanna and All Along the Watchtower.  He conveys a desire or a longing that makes the lyrics work so well as poems.  

As an artist, Dylan was "present" or "awake" in the moment.  He did not wander into abstractions or tell the listener what to think or how to feel.  He used figurative language (metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy) and carefully crafted the words' sound, rhythm, and meter.  He revised a lot, even after a song was recorded on an album.     

Here are the writing prompts I suggested for timed in-class exercises (about 8 minutes of flow writing with no erasing).  I invite you to try these exercises, and see what happens. Each one yielded some excellent first drafts at the workshop, and I hope those writers finish those poems. 


Write about a person who you don't know but who caught your eye.  Describe this place and focus on a detail about that person.  Use vivid images. 

Write about a place:  This is a frequently used writing exercise that workshops often employ.  Richard Hugo, writer and author of The Triggering Town, said he always began writing about a town. When he did, it didn't take long before the real subject of the poem showed up. 

Choose an experience in your own life when you have felt lonely. Write about the time and the place using exact details.  You cannot use the word lonely in your writing, but you must convey the feeling the images, objects, or description.  

Write about an object well worn by your hands.  Take the persona of that object and write as if it could speak.  (This exercise provides good practice with staying in metaphor).  

After the free write exercises, I would mention the source:  Mr Tambourine Man, Visions of Johanna, etc.  

We talked about "voice."  Each writer has a unique voice.  Don't try to sound like Bob Dylan or anybody else!  Value your own combination of observations, obsessions, and phrasings. Your landscape, experience, and world view will be revealed in your voice. Strive to be authentic.  Be honest and true to your experience.  

The term "wordsmith" is archaic, but it carry the image of metal-working and blacksmiths.  Language is like ore; it must be mined.  It must be made into iron, and then it must be heated and shaped and welded and polished.   

Present your work out loud to others after you finish a poem. It will enable you to assess your final revision. There is no better way to "hear" the work. Even without direct feedback from listeners, you will be able to observe the sound, rhythm, and words as if from a stranger's eyes and ears.    

Walt Whitman, in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass wrote: 
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

Like Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman, live your poems.  Write against darkness.  Speak your truth.  Bring all of your attention to the moment you are living, and then to the poem you are writing.   


Work Cited

Bollier, Thomas, Chris Kirk and Richard Kreitner. Slate Magazine "Bob Dylan Song Map." May 24, 2013.  Web. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
Dylan Days.  Sponsored by Dylan Days, a nonprofit organization to advancing the arts in Bob Dylan's hometown.  Web. Retrieved 30 May 2013.

Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing.  Copyright 1979.  W.W.Norton and Company.

Whitman, Walt. "Preface to Leaves of Grass."  1855.  Web.  Retrieved 30 May 2013.

Zollo, Paul. "The Song Talk Interview." Web. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 

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