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Ambiguity and Abstraction in Bob Dylan’s Lyrics






Jeffrey Side



To many people contemporary poetry is a turn-off.  The reason for this is that the majority of these poems are boring. They are so because they fail to enable people to identify with them. The bulk of modern poetry is no longer about reader identification but about information transfer, information that could just as easily be conveyed in a prose form. These poems are written merely to convey the poet's thoughts and feelings about a specific event, situation or place he or she has experienced or is in the act of experiencing. The poet is not necessarily concerned with whether the reader is moved or not by the poem, so long as he or she understands clearly the information the poet is trying to convey. This may consist of some “important” insight gained from an experience, or it could be (as is usually the case) a prosaic statement or commentary about some commonplace aspect of contemporary life. 


The popular song at its best, however, does more than this. It excites both the imagination and emotions; it enables you to unlock your own highly personal box of images, memories, connections and associations. This is most readily evidenced in the songs of Bob Dylan. Even the most perfunctory of his songs is able to do this to a greater extent than most “serious” poetry. This is because his songs (and to a lesser extent songs in general) frequently utilise imprecise and abstract statements rather than particular and specific ones. Contemporary poetry, on the other hand, does the exact opposite of this: it utilises particular and specific statements rather than imprecise and abstract ones. This aversion to abstraction grew out of the influence of Ezra Pound who advocated a poetry that contained no abstract words or statements, and whose advice on poetic composition was to


use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something. Don’t use such expressions as “dim lands of peace”. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realising that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.


This poetic ethos is still drummed into students in schools and poetry workshops throughout the world.


This hostility to abstraction can be seen in Mathew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams’s Teach Yourself: Writing Poetry:


Many people still think that high-flown, abstract words give greater resonance to their writing, but vagueness is always a consequence of using abstract words. We would go further—abstractions should be avoided because they verge on the meaningless. If you think of the word ‘sadness’, for example, all you get is a blur in your head. If, on the other hand, you ransack your memory and fix on an experience that was a truly sad one, and tell people about this experience, your listeners will not have to take your word for it that you experienced sadness. They'll know because you've shown them.


Here we can see enacted the aesthetic of the author as the final arbiter of meaning. Sweeney and Williams place value only on the poet's feelings. The reader, for them, is merely a passive witness to the poet's experience of sadness. No mention is made that perhaps the poem would be a better one if the reader were allowed to experience sadness also.


The limitations of such poetry are plain to see if we compare a contemporary mainstream poem with a verse from a Bob Dylan song. First the “poetry”— ‘Night Shift’ by Simon Armitage:


Once again I have missed you by moments;

steam hugs the rim of the just-boiled kettle,


water in the pipes finds its own level.

In another room there are other signs


of someone having left: dust, unsettled

by the sweep of the curtains; the clockwork


contractions of the paraffin heater.

For weeks now we have come and gone, woken


in acres of empty bedding, written

lipstick love-notes on the bathroom mirror


and in this space we have worked and paid for

we have found ourselves, but lost each other.


Upstairs, at least, there is understanding

in things more telling than lipstick kisses:


the air, still hung with spores of your hairspray;

body-heat stowed in the crumpled duvet.


Of this sort of poem Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain write in their Introduction to Other British Poetries Since 1970 that ‘in each case the typical poem is a closed, monolineal utterance, demanding little of the reader but passive consumption’. What we have in Armitage's poem is a prosaic and descriptive piece of prose that leaves nothing to the reader's imagination. Apart from a loose use of rhyme and the rhetoric of the line ‘we have found ourselves, but lost each other’ this is not, strictly speaking, poetry at all but prose configured into a rhythmic pattern. So dependent is it on information transfer that it is easily paraphrased:


You have just left the building. So recently, in fact, that the kettle still has steam on its rim after just being switched off. But this is not the only sign that your departure has been recent: in the other room the dust is still floating about from the action of the curtains you opened. Similarly, the heater you have just turned off makes a noise, as it cools, like the regular ticking of a clock.


For weeks now we have not spent much time together because we work at different times. And because of this inconvenient arrangement we have to sleep and wake at different times, which means that when I wake you are not in the bed with me.


The only way we can communicate is by leaving messages of our love for each other written using your lipstick (lipstick: because lipstick is a symbol of romance—isn’t it?) on the bathroom mirror. And isn’t it ironic that in this home of ours (one that we have worked and paid for) we have each gained self-knowledge but, sadly, lost a certain intimacy of each other?


But back to what I was saying before: about the objects I am looking at which represent your physical existence in this room and, by implication, your continuing existence elsewhere. For example, the scent of your hairspray still lingers, and the bed is still warm from the heat of your body. These things remind me of us making love and are, therefore, more sensuous indicators of our physical relationship than are the lipstick messages I have already mentioned.


This writing style is the basis of the operating principles of much of contemporary mainstream poetry.


In contrast to this let us now look at a verse from one of Dylan's more perfunctory songs, ‘Changing of the Guards’:



Fortune calls.

I stepped forth from the shadows, to the marketplace,

Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down.

She's smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born,

On midsummer's eve, near the tower.


Nothing could be further away from Armitage’s poetry. Dylan is not afraid to generalise, for he knows that it is only through generalisation that the reader can recognise the specific. Keats understood this when he said that a poem ‘should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity’ that ‘it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance’ (letter to John Taylor, 27 February 1818). This is simply not possible with the poetry of Armitage. Dylan is also unafraid to mix poetic registers, instances of which are his use of archaic phrasing such as ‘I stepped forth’, ‘smelling sweet like the meadows’ and ‘on midsummer's eve’ alongside the more demotic ‘last deal gone down’. This adds linguistic variety and richness while paying homage to his poetic inheritance.


The verse states at its beginning that ‘fortune calls’, but we are not told for whom. Is it for Dylan? Is it for us, the listeners? Is it for humanity in general? Dylan leaves the choice up to us. The verse then introduces a persona with ‘I stepped forth from the shadows’ but this persona is not developed or elaborated upon, and we are left guessing as to its identity. Even the word ‘shadows’ (something Sweeney and Williams would frown upon) leaves open a myriad of interpretive possibilities. And phrases such as ‘merchants and thieves’, and ‘hungry for power’, not only function as specific symbols for corruption, decay and amorality, but as more general statements about the nature of the human condition.  And who is the woman who is ‘smelling sweet’? How is she like the meadows? Why is the word “meadows” plural—how can she be born in more than one meadow? Is the meadow a meadow? If not what does it symbolise? And what is the tower—is that symbolic?


Similarly with ‘The Wicked Messenger’, more questions are raised than answered. The first verse is:


There was a wicked messenger

from Eli he did come,

with a mind that multiplied

the smallest matter.

When questioned who had sent for him,

he answered with his thumb,

for his tongue it could not speak, but only flatter.


We note immediately the presense of ambiguity with the line: ‘from Eli he did come’. We are not told if Eli is a place or a person. The name has biblical connotations and can easily be a person. In the Old Testament Eli was the judge and high priest of Israel and even though he was a loyal follower of God, his reluctance to remove his two dishonest sons from the priesthood resulted in disgrace. By Dylan not telling us who or what Eli is allows us to perhaps see a biblical reference in the name. If we take the name as referring to the biblical Eli then we have to ask the question: If the messenger was sent by Eli (who was faithful to God) why is he seen as being wicked? Is it because his mind ‘multiplied the smallest matter’ (possibly meaning he was neurotic), or that his ‘tongue it could not speak, but only flatter’ (possibly meaning he was a liar)? Are these things sufficient for someone to be called wicked? Alternatively, perhaps the messenger is wicked because there is a crudity about him—he ‘answered with his thumb’ (he gave the finger, perhaps?). Even more mysterious is the line: ‘When questioned who had sent for him’. This alludes to the possibility that perhaps Eli is not a person but a place because whoever sent for the messenger was requesting it from another geographical location than the one the messenger inhabited. If Eli is a person, then Eli would have been the one who sent him—there would be no need for a second person to request it.


With the second verse we have:


He stayed behind the assembly hall,

it was there he made his bed.

Oftentimes he could be seen returning,

until one day he just appeared

with a note in his hand which read,

‘The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning’.


From the first two lines of this verse, we get the impression that the people of the community he has entered have shunned him, which has forced him live in less than hospitable surroundings. There is some irony in this, as his bed is behind the assembly hall—a place that one associates with the gathering of a community, yet he has been isolated. With the line: ‘Oftentimes he could be seen returning’ more questions are prompted. Where is he returning from? Is it from Eli (be it a place or person)? What is the reason for the frequency of his trips to and from the community? Is he on some secret errand—if so, for whom? When he does return from one of his trips Dylan describes it as: ‘until one day he just appeared’—no one has seen him returning on this occasion. The note he is carrying which reads: ‘The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning’, seems ominous. Does it indicate some sort of eternal judgment and damnation for him and/or the community?


The final verse is:

Oh, the leaves began to fallin’

and the seas began to part,

and the people that confronted him were many.

And he was told but these few words

which opened up his heart

‘If you cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any’.


The first two line of this verse have apocalyptic connotations. The falling leaves evocative of decay and death and the parting seas connoting massive geological and meteorological upheavals redolent of End Time prophesies. Such is the message that he delivers to the community that he is confronted by them with the words: ‘If you cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any’.


Both ‘The Changing of the Guards’ and ‘The Wicked Messenger’ utilise vagueness and ambiguity to allow the listener to create highly individualised interpretations that are not possible with the majority of mainstream contemporary poetry. Dylan’s oeuvre enables a high level of listener empathy and identification that the bulk of modern mainstream poetry is unable to accomplish. Such poetry is no longer about reader identification but about author communication.


David Bleich, in Readings and Feelings champions the creative powers of the reader. He believes writing about literature should not involve suppressing readers’ individual concerns, anxieties, passions and enthusiasms because ‘each person’s most urgent motivations are to understand himself’. And as a response to a literary work always helps us find out something about ourselves, introspection and spontaneity are to be encouraged. Every act of response, he says, reflects the shifting motivations and perceptions of the reader at the moment of reading, and even the most idiosyncratic and autobiographical response to the text should be heard sympathetically. In this way, the reader is able to construct, or create, a personal exegesis by utilising the linguistic permutations inherent in the text to construct units of meaning constituted from a predominantly autobiographical frame of reference.


However, there are poets who disagree: aiming to delight by pure observational descriptive accuracy. They use poetry in the same way a novice art student uses a pencil to draw a still life. A satisfying poem, on the other hand, is one that enters the readers’ minds and turns the key to their imagination. It enables them to find meanings and emotions that hold a particular significance and relevance to their experience because of the process of filtration via memory. A poem that fails to satisfy does the opposite: it tells you what it is about, the emotions you are to feel and the understanding you are to have.


Each reader should be permitted the fundamental privilege of formulating a meaning which would (for that reader) be the quintessence of the poem's significance. The poem, in and of itself, is of little consequence other than as a cipher for this practice to occur. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that enable readers to recall their own experiences, reflect present circumstances, and anticipate future desires. Each word should be twisted, stretched, moulded and free-associated from in order to signify anything the reader wants them to signify. By doing this, the reader becomes, in effect, the composer of the poem, and the definer of its limits. Such an approach to reading poetry, if widely understood and accepted, could possibly restore poetry to its status as an important and popular art form. 


The songs of Bob Dylan are so well loved and appreciated precisely because they accomplish what so much modern poetic writing fails to do. They enable the listener to inhabit the song to the extent that the song becomes an expression of their deepest thoughts.




copyright ©  Jeffrey Side  


Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.