Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bob Dylan and Billy Collins

This weekend an article appeared in The Times discussing publication for the first time of nearly two-dozen poems written by Bob Dylan almost forty-five years ago. Apparently, the poetry had been handed to photographer Barry Feinstein in the 1960s by his friend, Bob Dylan. Feinstein, who often photographed Hollywood celebrities, also had followed Dylan on his European tour in 1966 and had taken a cover photo of the singer for The Times They Are A-Changin album.

Dylan’s poems had been stored along with Feinstein’s Hollywood pictures that inspired much of the material in the twenty-three poems. Recently rediscovered, the photographs and poems are now available in a new book, Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric, published by Simon & Schuster. Some of the poems are reprinted in Times Online, which describes their appearance and content: “the lines are skinny, the rhythms abrupt, the language sparse and telegraphic and abbreviated, the situations jarring and dreamlike, the comebacks frequent and snappy. There are laments, complaints, musings, skits (a hilarious screen test, for one), parables (converting those wardrobe department shelves into a repository of human lives), nightmare scenarios (the lurching paranoid fantasy that begins ‘after crashin the sportscar / into the chandelier’ and sounds like a hellish rewrite of ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’), and plenty of dry tombstone epigraphs.”

Perhaps almost as interesting is the accompanying commentary by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who is credited as contributing an introduction to the book. Collins addresses questions concerning Bob Dylan’s status as a “poet.” Initially, Collins explains why songwriters rarely produce lyrics that achieve the criteria to qualify as lines of poetry: “Whenever the question comes up—and it does nearly every term—of whether or nor rock lyrics qualify as poetry, I offer my students a simple but heartless test. Ask all the musicians to please leave the stage and take their instruments with them—yes, that goes for the backup singers in the tight satin dresses, and the drummer—and then have the lead singer stand alone by the microphone and read the lyrics from that piece of paper he is holding in his hand. What you will hear can leave only one impression: the lyrics in almost every case are not poetry, they are lyrics.”

Nevertheless, Billy Collins continues his commentary to suggest Bob Dylan could be categorized among “the few exceptions”; indeed, Collins reports “the top spot on that short list is perennially reserved for Bob Dylan.” Billy Collins characterizes Dylan’s poetry in the new book as works that “sound familiar because of the ways in which they resemble his lyrics.” Collins writes about the appearance of Bob Dylan’s poems on the page: “printed words marked by Dylan’s quirky abbreviations as well as the shape of the poems, usually as skinny as a teetering column of poker chips stacked on the page in tightly sawed-off lines.”

Despite these observations by Billy Collins and my own highest admiration for Bob Dylan as our premier songwriter, I find myself still not convinced of Dylan’s poetic talent on the printed page. Although Dylan had once confided that he considered himself “a poet first and a musician second,” Dylan seems to share some doubt about the poetry label as well. In the news article he responds indirectly—maybe, sardonically—to a question about marking his writings with the term of “poem” by refusing to use the word: “You’d probably have to ask some academicians about that.” When pressed by his interviewer, Dylan remarks further: “If they are poems or if they are not poems, does it really matter? And who would it matter to?”

Dylan’s thoughts about his biography and his works have always had to be accepted with a grain of salt; yet, his replies in this article appear to echo some of the analysis I previously offered about his lyrics in my notes on “Bob Dylan’s Beginning”:

Dylan regarded poets as significant reflections of the American voice and some seemed to exert influence on the texture in his voice. In fact, Allen Ginsberg occasionally accompanied Dylan on stage during touring and famously appeared in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” music video. In Chronicles Dylan begins one of his chapters with the following observations: “I had just returned to Woodstock from the Midwest—from my father’s funeral. There was a letter from Archibald MacLeish waiting for me on the table. MacLeish, Poet Laureate of America—one of them. Carl Sandburg, poet of the prairie and the city, and Robert Frost, the poet of dark meditations were the others. MacLeish was the poet of night stones and the quick earth. These three, the Yeats, Browning and Shelley of the New World, were gigantic figures, had defined the landscape of twentieth-century America. They put everything in perspective.”

Some have suggested Bob Dylan should be regarded as a poet as well. In fact, as British Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion expressed his fondness for Dylan’s poetic language, with “Visions of Johanna” containing his favorite lyrics. Dylan is quoted as considering himself “a poet first and a musician second.” I don’t go so far as to label Dylan a poet because I consider the words in his lyrics already as valuable as any poems when regarded simply as sensational songs, each one existing just as Dylan designed it for his listeners. Moreover, since he often changes the ways he presents the songs in concert and sometimes alters the lyrics, one might contend the songs are meant to be experienced differently every time they are performed, and the static words on a page would not fully represent them. The power and the persuasion of his language can best be experienced with the rhythm and melody contributed by his music, as well as the unique cadence and phrasing placed upon the words by Dylan’s singing.

Certainly, I would adjust my comments when reflecting upon Dylan’s poems meant solely to be read on the printed page. I remember when I first confronted this situation as a teenager who had purchased Dylan’s book of poetry, Tarantula. Even then, as entertaining and energetic as the language sometimes seemed to be, I doubted its effectiveness as literature. Once again, now as I read these poems, I wonder whether they would receive any attention—let alone praise by a former U.S. Poet Laureate and publication in The New Yorker magazine for a couple of the poems from the book—had they not been produced by Bob Dylan. Indeed, as is the case with publications of poetry by other celebrities from popular culture, the answer clearly is “no.”

In an October issue of Times Online one can read about how Dylan recently declared a poet as his greatest source of inspiration. Keeping in mind my advice of caution presented above about accepting Dylan’s revelations concerning his own biography or works (and the fact the songwriter’s comments were part of an advertising campaign), the reporting in The Times provides a bit of insight: “Two hundred years from now, cultural historians may argue about which of the two was more important and influential: the 20th-century singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, or the 18th-century Scots poet Robert Burns. Both men, it is fair to say, wrote two of the greatest seduction ballads of all time. But whether ‘Lay Lady Lay’ persuaded more couples into bed than ‘A Red, Red Rose’ must remain an unresolved debate. What is known, however, is that Dylan has credited Burns as his source of greatest inspiration, selecting ‘A Red, Red Rose,’ written in 1794, as the lyric or verse that has had the biggest effect on his life.”

Surely, the lines from Burns that Dylan quotes as inspiring are no greater than the lines in many of Dylan’s remarkable songs, including those visible in the above video of “Lay Lady Lay”:

O my luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonny lass
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Moreover, to give credit where credit is due, when faced with such an example of poetic lines, Dylan’s lovely lyrics do not suffer much at all by comparison and appear to be poetry, even in spite of their glaring grammatical error.

In addition, readers are invited to revisit a poem by Billy Collins, “Fiftieth Birthday Eve,” which appeared in the Fall/Winter 2002-2003 issue (Volume IV, Number 1) of Valparaiso Poetry Review.


vankbrock said...

Most lyrics are just lyrics, crippled without the music, and often the music is not much. One is tacked to the other. Dylan begins with a good lyric and draws it out with his voice, guitar, harmonica, and the expressions on his face. His song is a unitary experience, like a poem. And like a poem, it is understated, and he makes less more. Johnny Cash is also underated as a poet-musician. And maybe the Beatles.

Anonymous said...

Some of Dylan's lyrics work very well as poetry sans music ("Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," for example); some don't. As far as Tarantula, your impressions match mine. But I guess it's all in how one defines poetry. Folks find it where they want to find it - and I'm not sure, but I want to say some of the earliest poetry in (at least Western) history was sung or at the very least chanted. Perhaps the melody or presentation can be considered part of the "poem." Anyway, I tend to think the divorce of poetry from lyricality is a relatively modern phenomenon.

I enjoyed this blog!

Anonymous said...

Bob Dylan's book "Tarantula" from the same period is full of wonderfull little poems and crazy prose. As a poet I have been influenced and actually write a series of antagonistic letter-style poems in homage to Dylan & this book in particular,

Iain. D. Kemp

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this blog too. I agree totally with Vankbrok that a Bob Dylan song is a poem only as a unitary experience. When it is sung by anyone else, even Joan Baez, we can distinguish the music from the lyrics from the voice, but Bob Dylan transcends the sum of the parts.
We musn't forget that poems are sometimes put to music very happily after they have made their mark as poems. I remember lisening to an LP of Brian Patten's 'lyrics' in enchanted youth, and even Rockers used to ask me for the lyrics of Coleridge's 'The Ancient Mariner', listening to the poem much more eagerly that they did with the syllabus.
I must admit though that my favourite poet/singer is Leonard Cohen, who, according to me is a poet first and foremost - and only uses his rather monotonous musical background to set off his 'golden voice'. He has helped me through terrible times and even inspires some of my own poetry. though nobody would notice :)
maria grech ganado

Anonymous said...

I sometimes find it helpful when thinking about Dylan's merit as a 'poet' is that there is no real need to try to work out whether he is a poet with any merit!

What is extraordinary about Dylan is just his work. What I mean by that is that the work has such an effect that it is totally irrelevant whether it is poetry or not.

A friend of mine once said that great artists are like aliens - they produce work that sort of exists outside of anything we know to be rational, i.e the study of poetry, or the classification of poetry.

When I listen to Dylan I am not really thinking, 'What great poetry', I just think 'This is great'.

So great that his talent is pretty much absurd - it does not lend it self to being called poetry. It is on its own in its power. It is like nothing I've never heard. He might be a 'bad' poet on the page, but his work has had a far greater effect on me than many, many, many of the poets I have read and enjoyed.

sexy said...
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