Never Just One Thing, Part III: Dylan's Verbosity and the Path to Poetry

From my reading of Heylin's The Double Life of Bob Dylan, I'd say that the most important thing to know about Dylan's early years in NYC is that he wrote all the time. All the time. In bars and coffeehouses with all sorts of action and people around. At parties. Backstage. And, one can assume, when no one was around. There is a famous scene in the documentary Don't Look Back in which Joan Baez and Marianne Faithfull are having a go at singing a duet while Dylan is over in the corner typing away. In Heylin's telling, observers at the time took this as a measure of Dylan's self-absorption and disrespect for Baez and her art. Now, it may well be true, indeed likely, that he did disrespect her, but, even if that is true, the other way to see this scene, said Heylin, is in the spirit of bohemian Greenwich Village, where everyone was just freely pursuing their creativity in one another's presence, together but not together. I buy that. Many people in the book remark how their minds were boggled by Dylan's ability to write in any circumstance, impervious to distraction. I think the key here is that he didn't necessarily expect what he wrote to be good. He was interested in producing volume and then seeing what he could work with. Also, who knows what there was in the air that made it onto the page? That's important. The key was to write, to produce. I remember hearing William Burroughs describe Jack Kerouac with pithy phrasing that might seem to be a tautology, but which in fact is profound, telling us something we don't always grasp. "Jack was a writer," he said, "that is to say, he wrote."

Here we should mention that the young Bobby Zimmerman was profoundly impacted by the Beats, and On the Road in particular. There was spirit of utter freedom and disinhibition in it that was exhilarating for young people of the 50s (and in fact for me 25 years later). As the decades have gone by, that whole thing is frequently perceived as a joke or a cliche, but the impact was real and culturally and spiritually generative in the extreme. Kerouac's prose was characterized by its long-winded stream-of-consciousness style -- "spontaneous bop prosody," Kerouac called it. Sentences could go for pages. Indeed, even parenthetical insertions could go on for pages. Truman Capote spoke for the skeptics when he observed, "that's not writing, that's vomiting." Yet through this method, Kerouac at his best achieved a musicality of language unmatched in American prose. Ultimately, Dylan's merging of the aesthetics of Kerouac and Guthrie would prove epochal. But it took him a while to get there. 

His first efforts to incorporate intense verbosity were in the "talking blues" storytelling tradition. These were the first works of his where he asserted his personality, and they were big crowd-pleasers, filled with much word-play and humor. Significant ones include "Talkin' World War III Blues," "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues," and "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." One cringes now at the sheer shooting-a-fish-in-a-barrelness of the latter, but, hey, them's was the times, and thus is the manifestation of a certain mindset eternally. The important thing is that this was the form where Dylan started to come into his own. Call it a minor art, as opposed to the major art that would come. 

Quite interesting to me in the book was the wrong direction that long-form writing proved for Dylan. Once he become famous, there was always some kind of book deal in the works that never worked out where Dylan would write a full book of his surrealist, symbolist prose-poetry. Given the samples and excerpts of such writing in The Double Life, a full-length book of this would be excruciating. He ultimately did produce a book in this vein, Tarantula, but I have no interest in it. No, Dylan's genius would prove to be the ability to take the freedom, craziness, discovery, and momentum of free writing and condense it down and marry it into song form. If it took thousands of unpublished pages to get there then, well, we are all the better for it, and god bless him for his devotion to verbosity. He was a writer, that it is to say, he wrote. We just don't need to see it all.

Steadily, the poetry of Dylan's songs emerged. When he took everything he was developing in his free-writing practice and submitted it to the discipline and restriction of song form, then we really started to get somewhere. There is a clear development in this direction through his first recordings, beginning with his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, with instances of poetic lyricism such as "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and "Masters of War." The next album, The Times They Are A-Changin', featured the prophetic title track and the rousing "When the Ship Comes In." It also featured reflective, evocative works such as "One Too Many Mornings," one of his loveliest songs. But the big -- stupendous actually -- advance came two records later on Bringing It All Back Home, with some of the purest poetry ever set to popular song. There is the proto-rap of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the Zen philosophy of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," and the pristine lyricism of "Mr. Tambourine Man," in my view one of his top five songs. Next came Highway 61 Revisited, which only upped the ante, opening with the breakthrough of "Like a Rolling Stone," so unforgettable even as it's hard to say exactly what it's "about." That's because the best of Dylan embodies his assertion, cited by Heylin, that the songs are never about just one thing.


Part I: Dylan’s Mysterious Musical Maturation

Part II: The Nature of Dylan’s Art

Part III: Dylan's Verbosity and the Path to Poetry

Part IV: Close Reading Dylan's "Idiot Wind"

Part V: Don't Overlook Dylan's Musicality

Part VI: On Dylan's Identity Tricksterism

Part VII: What Dylan Knows and Doesn't Know

Part VIII: Dylan, Taylor Swift, and Genius Inflation

Part IX: Close Reading "Simple Twist of Fate"

Part X: The Authentic Zen of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"   


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