Years ago I read Tarantula, Dylan’s first book of poems, and, though I hate to say it, I wasn’t impressed. Even as a fledgling college writer I knew I wasn’t reading what I’d come to think of as poetry. His poems were interesting, yes, laden with the images and quirkiness the fill his songs. But even the best lyricists, it seems, don’t necessarily make the grooviest of poets.
So, these two poems written in the Sixties to accompany some Barry Feinstein photos are funny in their way, but I don’t know what else to think of them. The first, “17,” narrates the photo of a car parked in a garage where a chandelier hangs. Nothing else is in the garage (or in the picture, for that matter). The poem lacks capitalization and commas, among other conventions, though it does use periods. To indicate speech style, every instance of the word to is solely the letter “t,” as in “after crashin the sportscar / into the chandelier / i ran out t the phone booth . . .” I like this funkiness. The funkiest twist of all is the end, however, this weird, abrupt jump to a comment about Marlon Brando. As the speaker looks out a window—he’s taking a break from composing “a suicide note”—he sees a crowd, for which he says “i really have nothing / against / marlon brando.” It’s a weird thing to write. Was he killing himself because he thought he’d had something against Brando? Is the comment related to the crowd (who’s chasing Brando?) The poem, itself, is weird. But is weird enough? I guess what I’m saying is, “17” just lacks depth. Many of Dylan’s lyrics might actually suffer from this problem, but with music, vocals, etc., that potential problem never quite becomes an issue—and doesn’t need to: lyrics are part of a song. But, for a poem, the language is everything. It must do all the work.
That having been said, Dylan has some nice lines, a good sense of the poetic line in terms of creating a complete thought and moving on. “i really have nothing” (/ against / marlon brando), for example, would seem to indicate the speaker’s frame of mind: he crashes car, can’t get a hold of his wife or a chair, becomes a public spectacle, writes a suicide note. He’s had a bad day. He’s got nothing to gain and nothing to lose. And, it’s nice to see Dylan’s characteristic list in play in the poem. A good deal of the first half of the piece is just a list of actions in a vein similar to that in many of his lyrics, especially those to some of his older albums like Bringing It All Back Home. And, his language is generally imagistic and specific. It’s the depth of it that I don’t particularly care for. The poem predominantly stays on the surface of itself.
As for “21,” I prefer it to “17.” Unless it’s accompanied by the car and its chandelier, The New Yorker doesn’t include the photo it describes, though the poem makes the picture clear: a pool, some puppies, and death. One reason I prefer it is for its use of enjambment. The first poem arguably has two enjambed lines with the Marlon Brando passage, but “21” is replete with them. Enjambment, of course, isn’t necessary for a quality poem; however, it does put tension in the line and plays with rhythm among lines in ways endstopped lineation simply cannot. I’m interested in the poem’s little story too: death was all about the place the day it took the girl but skipped town the day of the funeral. And, I mean—what does death care about a funeral? So, I guess I agree with the poem’s point there, should it have one. And, like in “17,” the images are specific and the language simple but interesting: “death silenced her pool.” It would seem the reaper, here, is the reaper of the indoor mini four-lanes. That doesn’t make sense, exactly, but it’s interesting. It makes me think. Maybe the girl died in a way unrelated to the pool—to Feinstein’s picture—and death is just taking care of any witnesses: rippled pool water, “her little toy dogs.” Maybe she died by drowning. The meaning isn’t clear, but language makes me consider it, which is a good thing.
Dylan’s put out nearly a zillion albums since the early sixties, and I have a lot of them right up to Modern Times, which he released just a few years ago. I’m a respectful, appreciative fan. And, it’s good to see him in The New Yorker. But, without the music, his poetry doesn’t excite me the way poetry should. He’s a good example of why poetic doesn’t necessarily mean poem, why song lyrics aren’t necessarily poems either. Donald Hall wrote a great article on the acoustic differences between these art forms. I think it was in the APR, but I don’t recall . . . should I find it, I’ll link to it here.