Dylan’s Lyrics: Written for the ears not the eyes

On a recent episode of the charming Start the Week BBC Radio 4 program we heard Frances Wilson, Salman Rushdie and Simon Armitage discuss the rehabilitation of DH Lawrence and the relationship between the writer and their work. In the closing minutes (approx 37:00) host Andrew Marr asks Armitage about an essay that claims Bob Dylan’s lyrics “don’t really hold up as great poetry, you have to listen to the songs in order to understand the interleaving of the music and the words….can you tell us what you think doesn’t work on the page? Is it repetition, is it sloppiness of the language, evasiveness?”

Armitage responds that in a poem “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really…it has to be done with the alphabet.” Whereas songwriters can “write the lyric and even ‘la-la-la’ might sound very good if you put it to the right chord progression. It can be utterly transcendent if it’s working well with the music and if you’re wearing the right cowboy boots and if you’ve got the right voice.”

He reports taking Dylan lyrics into his poetry class where younger students (unfamiliar with the tune) might appreciate the poetic aspects, nevertheless see cheesy rhymes, repetition, tautology and other elements “that you can’t get away with on the printed page.”

Speechwriters as songwriters

In many ways Armitage is stating the obvious. Songs are created to be listened to, not read (as rewarding as a close reading of Dylan’s lyrics can be). As with great songs, so with great speeches.

Speechwriting authorities Nancy Duarte and Bob Lehrman drive home the message that speeches (like songs) need to be written for the ear not, (as are poems) for the eye.

Sparklines

Nancy Duarte’s seminal 2010 book Resonate focuses on visual storytelling. With the use of what she calls ‘sparklines’ she graphically illustrates the arc of a speech and maps the emotion and delivery by tracking the laughter and applause alongside the words (lyrics) of great speeches such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It would be fascinating to apply a sparkline mapping audience reaction to live musical performances.

Political speechwriting

Political pundit and speechwriting professor Bob Lehrman (literally) wrote the book on speechwriting. In examining why persuasive speeches work, he lists the various forms of repetition (anaphora, epistrope, antimetabol, and climatic order) and forms of vivid language (simile and metaphor, understatement and irony) that work on the heartstrings, not just the head space, of the audience.

While these techniques can be employed by poets, they resonate differently when delivered by a compelling speaker.

In the beginning was the word

In claiming that “everything that happens in a poem has to happen within the text, in silence really” Armitage overlooks the pre-literate origins of poetry, when bards of old, the minstrels of Medieval times, recited epic poems which the tellers knew by heart. The literary techniques they used provided aide memoirs for themselves and for their listeners.

Writing in the New York Times, history professor Molly Worthen notes:

Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry. Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests and wandering bards recited poetry in order to entertain and connect with the divine.

Sorry, Simon, the origins of the poem are with the word, not the page.

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