Poetry Information

Ambiguity and Abstraction in Bob Dylan's Lyrics


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 jaded statement or commentary about some mundane 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.

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' and 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).

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. The ambiguities present in Dylan's oeuvre enable the listener to do exactly this.

Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines including: T.O.P.S., The White Rose, Poetry Salzburg Review, ism, Sphinx and Homeground. And his poems have appeared on various poetry web sites such as Poethia, nthposition, Ancient Heart Magazine, Blazevox, hutt and Cybpher Anthology.

He has reviewed poetry for New Hope International, Stride Magazine, Acumen and Shearsman Magazine. From 1996 to 2000 he was the assistant editor of The Argotist magazine. He now runs The Argotist Online web site:

http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/index.html


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