In 2004, a Newsweek magazine article called Bob Dylan "the most influential cultural figure now alive," and with good reason. He has released more than forty albums in the last four decades, and created some of the most memorable anthems of the twentieth century, classics such as "The Times They Are A-Changin," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Blowin' in the Wind."
While Dylan's place in the pantheon of American musicians is cemented, there is one question that has confounded music and literary critics for the entirety of Dylan's career: Should Bob Dylan be considered a songwriter or a poet? Dylan was asked that very question at a press conference in 1965, when he famously said, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."
The debate has raged on ever since, and even intensified in 2004, when Internet rumors swirled about Dylan's nomination for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and five well-hyped books were released almost simultaneously: Dylan's Visions of Sin, by Oxford professor of poetry Christopher Ricks, who makes the case for Dylan as a poet; Lyrics: 1962-2001, a collection of Dylan's songs presented in printed form; Chronicles, the first volume of Dylan's memoir; Keys to the Rain, a 724-page Bob Dylan encyclopedia; and Studio A, an anthology about Dylan by such esteemed writers as Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, and Barry Hannah.
Christopher Ricks, who has also penned books about T. S. Eliot and John Keats, argues that Dylan's lyrics not only qualify as poetry, but that Dylan is among the finest poets of all time, on the same level as Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. He points to Dylan's mastery of rhymes that are often startling and perfectly judged. For example, this pairing from "Idiot Wind," released in 1975:
Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
The metaphorical relation between the head and the head of state, both of them two big domes, and the "idiot wind" blowing out of Washington, D.C., from the mouths of politicians, made this particular lyric the "great disillusioned national rhyme," according to Allen Ginsberg.
"The case for denying Dylan the title of poet could not summarily, if at all, be made good by any open-minded close attention to the words and his ways with them," Ricks wrote in Dylan's Visions of Sin. "The case would need to begin with his medium."
The problem many critics have with calling song lyrics poetry is that songs are only fully realized in performance. It takes the lyrics, music, and voice working in tandem to unpack the power of a song, whereas a poem ideally stands up by itself, on the page, controlling its own timing and internal music. Dylan's lyrics, and most especially his creative rhyme-making, may only work, as critic Ian Hamilton has written, with "Bob's barbed-wire tonsils in support."
It is indisputable, though, that Dylan has been influenced a great deal by poetry. He counts Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine alongside Woody Guthrie as his most important forebears. He took his stage name, Bob Dylan, from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (his real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman). He described himself once as a "sixties troubadour," and when he talks about songwriting, he can sometimes sound like a professor of literature: "I can create several orbits that travel and intersect each other and are set up in a metaphysical way."
His work has also veered purposefully into poetry. In 1966, he wrote a book of poems and prose called Tarantula. Many of the liner notes from his 1960s albums were written as epitaphs. And his songwriting is peppered with literary references. Consider, for example, these lyrics from "Desolation Row," released on 1965's Highway 61 Revisited:
Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody's shouting
"Which Side Are You On?"
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain's tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Professor Ricks is not the only scholar who considers Dylan a great American poet. Dylan has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996, and the lyrics to his song "Mr. Tambourine Man" appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature.
So do his song lyrics qualify as poetry? Even Dylan gets the two genres confused sometimes. He once called Smokey Robinson his favorite poet, then later backpedaled and said it was Rimbaud. He has alternatingly avoided this question and mocked it, as in his song "I Shall Be Free No. 10":
Yippee! I'm a poet, and I know it
Hope I don't blow it
However, the best, most straightforward answer may have appeared in the liner notes of his second album, 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, where Dylan said, simply: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem."