What does that song mean?

Why Bob Dylan’s Lyrics are Taught in College

Posted Jun 7th 2012, 17:30


In 2008 a college professor at Boston University made waves by announcing a class in the lyrics of Bob Dylan.  Even though we’d had Dylan for half a century, people were still a little taken aback by the thought of his lyrics being taught at the same level – and with the same gravity – as Shakespeare and Keats.

Lecturer Kevin Barents is a staunch Dylan fan, but he also argues convincingly for why his lyrics should be taught as literature: 

“I think that he's one of the best contemporary American poets, even if you just look at the lyrics stripped of the music. He's been an important link between some of the great poets behind him, like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and in turn he's been an inspiration and subject for poets like Paul Muldoon and [Allen] Ginsberg.”

For those who hated poetry lessons in school, it might be difficult to see how any songwriter, no matter how brilliant, could be considered worthy of study without the context of their music. This isn’t difficult to rationalize though, if we go back in time a bit.

Back in the old days, and I don’t mean “when NES was cool”, most people couldn’t read.  When English as a language didn’t really exist except as a bastardized form of Anglo-Saxon, it was considered so low that it hadn’t even been fully agreed how it should be written down.  Latin was spoken in church, and Old French or other Germanic dialects were spoken by kings and queens.

But there were poets – rare, educated men who could read, but were men of the people first.  When not writing dick and fart jokes that would make your average internet humorist blush, they produced some of the most important poetry since humans discovered that rocks were not edible. 

Poems like The Seafarer and Beowulf, which is considered a “National Epic” in England, were written in a very specific kind of verse, with a very specific kind of meter.  Every line had a particular rhythm, with three of the same syllable stressed in each line, and that wasn’t an accident.  They were written this way for two specific reasons.  The first was that the repeating stressed syllables helped the poet to remember them by sound. The second was that he had to remember them, because he recited them by heart in taverns – usually to music.

The original meaning of the word “lyric” does not necessarily dictate that it was sung to music, but rather that it could be. Lyrics, while often viewed as a lesser form of poetry than epics, were nonetheless form an extremely important part of the English canon. The composers of lyrics were literally the first pop stars. The English didn’t invent this, mind you – the ancient Greeks and Romans were doing it a thousand years earlier.

Fast forward 800 years, to the time of monocles and steam ships, and this idea of music with words to it was still viewed as something of a pastime of the common people, not to be taken seriously by the learned.  Real music was something you went to a concert hall to hear an orchestra play. All the while, however, the bawdry lyrics of the previous millennium were still taught in universities. 

This perception persisted until fairly recently, until artists like Bob Dylan and The Beatles began to make music with lyrics that was considered to be both “popular” and “art”. If we look at it on a long enough timeline, and stretch that out a few hundred years, it would be abhorrent to imagine a world where one of the greatest lyricists of our time was not taught in schools in 2211.  Barents is just getting in there early.

If you need more reasons for why Dylan should be considered a great contemporary poet, take a look at the lyrics to his album John Wesley Harding (1963).  Most of it is written in a meter called iambic pentameter, which you may remember from high school.  Any failed poet can tell you that writing in iambic pentameter, and making it good both lyrically and rhythmically, is one of the most difficult tasks you can imagine.  Not only does it require a way with words greater than a president’s speechwriter, but it also calls for an innate mathematical ability most of us simply don’t have.

Mike Marqusee, a writer for Britain’s The Guardian, explains in one sound-bite, exactly why Bob Dylan should be taught as a contemporary poet:

“Whether or not his lyrics work as poetry on the printed page, he remains a great writer. His range puts most modern poets to shame: from minimalist eloquence to delirious verbal and sensuous richness, from the comic to the tender via petty resentments and transcendental longings, often within the compass of a single song”


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