"My poems are written," Bob Dylan reflects in the jacket notes to "Bringing It All Back Home," " . . . with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness--seen at times through dark sunglasses an' other forms of psychic explosion, a song is anything that can walk by itself . . . a poem is a naked person." That final statement of vulnerability sums up Bob Dylan as artist, the rambling "troubadour," "outlaw," "bleeding child," never one to assume such designated titles as culture hero.
While performing together last summer at the Moscow International Poetry Festival in the distinguished company of Seamus Heaney, Robert Bly, Ernesto Cardenal and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Dylan confided to me: "These are world-class artists." His shocked testimonial spoke of an awe usually reserved for Dylan himself, of whom many might say, "as long as Dylan's in his rhythm, all's right with the word."
And the word is what we get. Five hundred pages of "psychic explosion," the unexpurgated version of Dylan's lyric Bible from 1962 to 1985, as compelling and far-ranging a social commentary on the last 20 years as any recently offered. As an expansion of the 1975 "Writings and Drawings," "Lyrics" impresses most as a feat of personal tenacity, the artist continuing to endure nakedness while the culture he had once stripped bare straps on its armor. Clearly, by the evidence of his impressive output, Dylan is not guilty of his own '60s indictment: ". . . That he not busy being born/is busy dying."
With 120 additional writings up to and including "Empire Burlesque," "Lyrics" chronicles an entire culture's identification with its own growing pains. From the classic "Blowin' in the Wind" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" through the rock success "Like a Rolling Stone" and the romantic "Lay, Lady, Lay" to story songs like "Lily, Rosemary, and Jack of Hearts," Dylan's personal odyssey reveals the raison d'etre of his musings, famously introspective and purposefully involuted--as well as notoriously surreal:
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
Dylan is always better when his lyrics roam the paths of social consciousness. "The Death of Emmett Till," like the legendary "The Times They Are A-Changin' " and "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," fractures time with a universal theme so insistent that echoes from Sojourner Truth to Desmond Tutu merge:
Your arms and legs must be in shackles and chains,
and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
Dylan is master of the lyric. Yet, the song lyric invokes too easily the insouciance of language and the hookline cliches found in "Wallflower" or "Baby, Stop Crying." It is when Dylan exacts the sternly hued edges of metaphor that he is most naked and at his best, as in "11 Outlined Epitaphs" where he says of "wild thoughts":
now though they've leveled out
an' been wrung out
leavin' nothin' but the strangeness
the roots within a washed-out cloth
drippin' from the clothesline pole
or in the masterfully elegiac "Chimes of Freedom" where lush imagery and enjambed rhythms free Dylan from the more pedestrian iamb:
Even though a cloud's white curtain in a far-off corner flashed
An' the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting. . . .
Such "melodic purring" is reminiscent of the long mental breath lines of the Beats, and, indeed, Dylan immortalizes all "tambourine" troubadours singing the songs of the open road--and mind--in the traditions of Whitman, Guthrie and Ginsberg. Sharing Dylan's odyssey is like speeding up the reels of a documentary to collect the whole of a national consciousness.
Perhaps too much has been made of the born-again period of "Slow Train Coming." To paraphrase Somerset Maugham, "the mediocre artist is always at his best." He plays it safe. The true artist takes chances and knows failure. Bob Dylan takes chances in ways that include even the self-mocking divestiture of his own spiritual self. For such chance-taking vision, seen through dark sunglasses, fellow performers on the Moscow stage recognized Bob Dylan admiringly as a world-class artist.