In the switchblade of the night
The freezing jewel of barracuda delight
The tempting fate of failing light
The falling rhythm of dismay from this train
Of thought to obey the trunk is hidden in the back of time
The amulet is prised in line
The liberation a dance of swans
Some with beacon some with songs
A marching army of choruses
Bitter winds of self regret
From sands of time the tidal wave
The room of being the bloody knave
The haunting of the bloody cave
From which the nazi hunter gave
The Jew his freedom’s only grave
Atonement splendid in the light of days.
'It's Alright Ma I'm Only Bleedin' An Anthem for a Doomed Youth
I never fit in. I wasn't cool, I didn't play Sports, none of the fraternities would consider me in a million years and if you weren't in a fraternity or didn't play Sports you were no one. A great big Zero. Girls treated me as if I had a contagious disease or the bubonic plague or both. Until I was sixteen. I lost thirty pounds in six weeks working out all summer, doing football exercises in the incredible humid August mornings and afternoons. the pounds melted off, replaced by muscles. By summer's end I had to drink three San Miguel beers after the afternoon workout just to out back the water weight lost. Drank them at the married woman's house rented from my cousin's family, a property they would rent until they pissed it all away on weekend binges that got longer every weekend through the late sixties until they lost everything they owned and the aunt died way too young. But that's another story.
Afternoons spent at the married woman's. Could it have been my imagination or was she trying to get me drunk, get the cousin drunk, no she didn't really care for him, he was crazy after all, scarred from the fall he took after he knocked up Skinny Ginny and was dropped on his face and beat to a bloody pulp for transgressions upon the person of a way hot girl, fourteen pushing eighteen with a blunt instrument and no one mentioned the stillborn twins she bore months after the fall. No, no one saw much of Ginny either after, no one knows where she went., what she did but one thing for sure, they couldn't afford to put Doug's face back together with plastic surgery either. But the beers were cold and the married woman was saying stop by every day, there's always cold beers here for you, I'll be waiting remember that. And so would her roommate, a petite beautiful fraulein, flat chested, my type but definitely way too old, maybe thirty and not interested in young boys like the San Miguel woman, fat, how old, who knows? Who remembers? Who cares? She had two children, husband always on the road and her eyes roving, roving always, handing me the San Miguel, her fingers lingering on mine as she puts the frosty there. I chug it down and wonder if I'm living some kind of perverse Holden Caulfield nightmare at the end of the earth on Long Island, a Peyton Place revisited and everyone who mattered would know I was lingering here but how else was I going to get those beers, just turning seventeen, mean and lean now, a girlfriend who defied the odds of liking a misfit, more my style, more my age, turning seventeen that year as well, mid sixties of it's alright ma I'm only Bleedin’
And when I was done doing workouts, I was in Pug’s cellar drinking beers, his parent's didn't mind as long as there was no hard stuff involved, at least they knew where we were, hanging out listening to Rubber Soul over and over again, later, cruising the parking area on the docks overlooking the channel, checking out the inevitable rows and rows of parkers, who was doing who, and endless cruising, aimless, boredom, the watchword of the summer from the surfing movie, Endless Summer, our motto, "You really missed it, you should have been here yesterday---"That movie we drove into the city to see, passing the Last Exit to Brooklyn sign we longed to steal, unreachable so far above the concrete viaduct, full speed ahead, damn the traffic, highways, as if we could ever live a last exit to Brooklyn life, having just discovered that you could smoke the grass but not, like Charlie Chaplin's son had so wisely observed, the grass that grew on father's lawn. And we were ready to try anything to relieve the boredom, dressed in our official Bob Dylan Village Rebel outfits, maroon CPO jacket, faded jeans, torn moccasins or boots, our hands thrust deep into our pockets averting people's gazes, looking at the cracks in the sidewalk and appearing lost in some kind of transcendental thought that would probably translate into thinking of ways to get out of paying to do the same things twice years before Dylan had written the “Memphis Blues Again”. But he hadn't. So we had to settle for the revelation of “Blonde on Blonde”, “the sad eyed lady of the lowlands” blowing us away, hey yeah “positively fourth street,”” maggie's farm”, those spanish boots of spanish letter, if we were depressed and I was all the time depressed, this was music to fall into, hands deep in the pockets head full of beer, formative poems, the worst kind of adolescent riffs, attempting to find form on paper as some did and it would take years to get over the songs, the lyrics, the sad eyed poems, maybe a lifetime because time became compressed then accelerated out of control all through the sixties until whole lifetimes were created and expired in millennial highlights of a generation we were only half aware of participating in even as we stood on the sidelines, a Marlboro draped from our lips, Bogarting the filters like Jimmy Deans on a bums rush to the apocalypse in VW bugs instead of corvettes, chewing sunflower seeds in Pug's cellar, Nelson's idea. Nelson who would do anything female, do any drug that stood still long enough to be ingested, or anything that might be a drug, and who years later, after he was busted and forced to make a special choice: six years in a place of poor quality up north with hard assed criminal felon types hungry for hippie ass or three years in the service of your choice in the middle of an escalating war. This was a time of unenlightened marijuana laws and possession of residue could get your ass shit canned for an unbelievable time and Nelson took the obvious choice, the air corps. Then he turning up at my door before he shipped out to who the fuck knows where south east asian style, in uniform, impressing the shit out of my mother, not knowing he was there to attempt a cop, but it would be alight. Maybe. Soon, we'd be smoking banana peels, hell it was the age of Mellow Yellow and we were naive enough to believe anything.
And San Miguel was the beer of choice well into the season although I was not playing ball, I was working out like a madman. Suddenly the girls thought I wasn't such an awful thing, in fact, it was if I had acquired a musky scent of passion and they were all wide-eyed at the transformation, but I was true to my first love only taking out my former ostracized as-a-loser- frustrations, on all the greasers and punks and frat dudes who had spent five years dissing me in gym class, blowing them away in flag football games, on the wrestling mats, dodge balls wounds inflicted at unbelievable rates of speed and on the basketball court where my endless practicing was paying off with the addition of a body to fit the skills acquired working out before and after football practices, a sport I wisely didn't pursue into the high school season as our overmatched team was destroyed by larger schools, all the athletes in our school draft exempt because of the career threatening knee injuries, except for mine. And on the court where I outran them, took them to the hoop and used tricks learned on pickup courts, taking them out on lay ups, undercutting, swift shoves no ref would ever see, bodies up against the wall mother fuckers or face down on the mat broken nose rubbed in it, it was cool for all that year and after school there was always the San Miguels waiting in the ice box a couple of blocks away, San Miguel morning noon and night if I wanted them. and I wanted them. as I worked on my drinking problem right from the start of a drinking career that would span thirty years of wildly spinning out of control circles a vortex of whirl pooling hells, visions of demented Johanna’s on each level, all the baby blues of the mind screaming from pits of burning swamps. I was naked and alive giddy with the prospect of singing into the wildfires of dissipation, going down helter-skelter like man, years before Manson and I was ready for what would come, the hard stuff: drink drugs you name it, walking a thin tightrope of tenuous mental confusions, but I was so much older than that, I'm younger than that now.
And shit yeah, It's Alright Ma I'm Only Bleeding, my knuckles raw from punching the walls, stucco patterned sides of buildings, glass doors and windows that gave in and caused endless lines, scars that are still visible on the broken increasingly arthritic hands, faint now but a constant reminder of what it was like to be seventeen and confused enough to think that depression and dissipation and disaffection and anger added up to being a poet manqué and that someday I would grow up to be Bob Dylan and get to live in the Village and walk around with a beautiful hippie chick hugging me close, my eyes firmly on the ground, thinking profound thoughts, reading the poets of dismay and decay and the death french modernists, rimbaud, verlaine, baudelaire and the wild men of no religion no god, I was a poet in the making and it only took a couple of San Miguels to get me there and the hands on the wall, the one reaching for the cold bottles in the fridge was this hot to trot, missing two front teeth married babe the kids are asleep hubby is on the road and I'm oh so lonely oh so lonely for what only a young man can give me, a real four star Holden C. thing and I did what any self respecting Salinger youth would do: I left a 45 rpm record for her to listen to a remake of Bob classic, “it ain't me babe”, by the turtles for her, an unmistakable message for her to get and she did alright, ma…go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed, I'm not the one you want babe, I'm not the one you need, you say you're looking for someone, to bring you up each time you fall, to defend you and to protect you, to come each time you call, someone who will die for you and more, well it ain't me babe…and the verse not on the record the one that is closest to me now, a man sitting in darkness remembering the fateful, fitful past: melt back into the night babe, everything in here is made of stone, there's nothing in here moving ,and anyway I'm not alone…not alone, the images are living, dividing the past and the future into skinner box mazes I'm traveling lost and blind in, stealing booze from cabinets or getting the Colt 45's the aunt left on the back porch for us in paper bags as if they were some kind of Halloween candies for young men drinking to get high, to escape from the place where they were like the advertisement for downhill racer I would adapt as my credo years later staring out over the frozen wastes of the utica fields drunk and stoned into hallow man numbness…how long does it take a man to get from where he's at?...how long, I couldn't imagine it then, can't even now. Making the scene, whatever it was, still not someone who belonged but not treated as an untouchable, invisible useful as something to mock when all else failed or to ridicule or just piss on in the showers after an especially humiliating gym class, now a full-fledged rebel without a cause answering the call of the graduating youth service with my girlfriend and fellow seniors in the congregational youth service that I would begin my portion of, not mouthing the usual platitudes of god and man and youth and obedience to the cause and the right way whatever that was, standing up and saying, quoting the play and the dictum we worshipped from Marat/ Sade, Satan's prayer
O pray to him
Our Satan which art in hell
they kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth as it is in hell
forgive us our good deeds
and deliver us from holiness
Lead us into temptation
forever and ever”
a prelude to a short speech on the hypocrisy of church and state that brought a stunned silence and a communal, massive, reproving look from the little how townsfolk, row upon row of protestant good people all gone now, that last time I would be welcome inside that church until a generation later at a memorial service for my poor, dead, crazy as they got mother. And I soon I would be writing a Marat/ Sade of my own blindly going headlong down a vortex of my briefing for a descent to hell and it would go like this:
Marat/ Sade, as seen from inside, the Mineola
Playhouse, a BxW Still Life 1966
This is not the theater as we know it
but something artificial called Psycho
Drama. The character named Corday
is afflicted with the disease of sleeping,
insomnabulism, a walking infirmity common
to night creatures, that causes them to walk
the zombie life, without direction.
In the bathtub is a man whose dreaming
has caused his skin to erupt in sores
that can only be assuaged by laving,
a process similar to washing with lava
also known as trial by fire.
The wicked one who claims to be the Director
of farces is False as the word sadist
is not written in the Blue Dictionary
of Life as seen lying open by the tub
where Marat has left it after Corday
has dispatched him into blessed sleep
forever with her knife. On the walkway
ringing the stage, looking down on this
Live Performance are the inmates,
howling and jabbering their approval
of what is enacted on the live stage.
When the house lights dim, framing us,
the inmates in hospital gowns turn
grey, then black until all that can be
seen is the red fire lights of our eyes
flickering on and off in the dark.
And I was in the dark, 1966, nursing pints of contraband Vodka, sitting in the ball field dugout after dark drinking it straight on the edge of nowhere, the edge of the abyss, the edge of the sixties getting ready to jump off, screaming at the top of my lungs “It's Alright Ma I'm Only Bleeding”, a carpe diem, live for today, national anthem for the doomed youth I was becoming faster than light years, faster than speeding bullets, speedballs, and marijuana faster than the tickets that are exploding all around me, this death on an installment plan midnight express, the milk train doesn't stop here anymore, up against it all the way, Ma, I'm only bleeding waiting in the shadows for that nineteenth nervous breakdown to claim it's most willing, its newest victim, getting her mother's little helpers screaming inside, hey you get off of my cloud, the smoke ringed clouds of nowhere 1966.
Take that tie off, for Christ’s sake –
you’ll get us both killed.
Then he’s elbow-deep at the bar
and I’m staking out the snug
as bloodshot eyes return to racing pinks,
no female weekday drinkers here.
I miss the ashtrays and pre-smartphone
boredom as a round was fetched,
the risk of eye contact with strangers,
the former marine and that disabled tutor
who urged me not to write,
there being too many words already.
Through it all comes lucid dreaming,
revealing the lie of the land.
We get out while we can
Having stalked the outer fjords of Greenland
and caught the spring on an altiplano breeze,
I am banned from climbing Mount Shuksan
in Cascading footsteps of Snyder and Kerouac
while young hares dance across the meadow,
having lost the latest six-dollar state lottery
for a federal wilderness area access permit,
and not holding a creative writing PhD.
Condemned instead to urban fairgrounds
from a cathedral spire I put my penny in the slot
to watch a thousand matchstick lawyers
dance their way along cobbled boulevards
as though life itself has rhyme or reason,
and if arranging an altarpiece offering
is allegedly a redeeming gesture of faith,
aligning cloth colour, God and sacrificant,
then climbing a mountain is no less a ritual,
the placement of both gear and flesh
a prayer towards a dialogue with rock,
subject to the proper paperwork, it seems.
There is always someone carving out an empire
from the flesh and joy of whoever occupied
a particular piece of administrative estate before,
library corridors and bookstacks ripe for realignment
as crosshairs narrow on still surviving native pine
and slipping loose from the holy matinee
to survey the latest map revision in Dylan’s Bar
is acceptance this love always was a losing hand
in a dying game which was long since rigged,
but still, even diesel-soaked horizons beckon
and so we get out where and while we can.
Bio: Laurence Morris works in academic libraries and is a fellow of the UK's Royal Geographical Society. His poems have been published in Confluence, Snakeskin, Shot Glass Journal, Dodging the Rain, The Broken Spine, 192 and elsewhere. He lives in the north of England and if not in a library is probably out walking in the rain.
When singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the choice proved controversial. There were those who approved, for example novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie, who wrote on Twitter: “Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the Bardic tradition”. But others on Twitter criticised the decision, like novelist Irvine Welsh’s vicious reaction: “…this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”. Others used irony, such as writer Gary Shteyngart: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.” (all three quotes from 13th October, 2016).
At the heart of this debate is the question of whether Dylan is a poet or not. British poet laureate Simon Armitage, despite his fondness for his music, doesn’t think so. Whereas literary critic, academic and author of “Dylan’s Vision of Sin” (2004) Christopher Ricks thinks he is.
The debate isn’t just about Dylan. It is about how we define poetry and whether popular songs can be poetry at all. Few would doubt there are many songwriters whose lyrics are intelligent and literate. From Cole Porter to Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and taking in the likes of Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Stevie Wonder and many others, literate lyrics have been a feature of popular music since commercial recordings began in the 1920s. But according to poet laureate Simon Armitage:
Songwriters are not poets. Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors. (The Guardian, 27 June, 2008).
Clearly, the lyrics of popular songs are verse, yet the likes of Armitage argue they are not poetry. So what, if anything, is the difference between poems and song lyrics? Jane Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra, defines the difference thus:
However, poet A. E. Houseman (author of the perennially popular “A Shropshire Lad”) suggests that any definition of poetry is going to be inadequate:
I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. (“The Name and Nature of Poetry” 1933).
Houseman highlights the problems with any attempt to coral poetry inside a fence: given the subjective nature of literary appreciation, how can we have an objective definition that everyone can agree on? Poetry – and poets – will always find ways of smashing through any artificial barriers.
The notion that poetry is for the page and song for the voice, as expressed by Jane Webb, is not only limiting. It also ignores the whole history of poetry as well as the activities of contemporary writers who call themselves poets.
Let’s look at that history. The first thing we notice is that poetry pre-dates literate society. Indeed, the very notion of it as something for the page is a relatively recent one. In the Western tradition, among the earliest examples of the art are the works attributed to Homer: “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, works that are among the most influential ever written, the latter even being the inspiration for the 2000 comedy film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” featuring bluegrass and acoustic country music.
We don’t know exactly when Homer’s poetry was composed, indeed we don’t even know whether the name “Homer” referred to just one person or several. It is estimated they were written about the late 8th century BCE, but we aren’t even certain about that. Nor are we certain about the exact text of the poems. This is for the simple reason they were originally transmitted orally and as they were passed from place to place, year to year, person to person, the text could change. We think the poems were first written down in the 6th century BCE, at least 200 years after they were first composed.
Homer isn’t an isolated example of poetry as an oral art. At one time, it was the norm. For example, the Old English epic “Beowulf” is thought to have been originally transmitted orally, only first being written down in the tenth century CE. That the poem contains different dialects and combines both Pagan and Christian elements certainly argues for it being composed and handed down orally.
Many of the Norse sagas, such as “The Orkneyinga Saga” and the various Icelandic Sagas were compiled in the middle ages from oral sources which had been passed down from generation to generation.
Nor was it just epic poetry and sagas that had their roots in the oral tradition. In Ancient Greece, lyric poetry was sung to the accompaniment of the lyre or similar instruments. One of the most famous lyric poets of that era was Sappho, from the island of Lesbos, a woman who sang love poems to other women. Elegies too were oral poetry, generally recited to a flute accompaniment.
Even if we restrict ourselves to the British Isles, we see that some of our most famous poets were not – or not always – page poets. Three examples will show this.
Firstly, William Shakespeare who some have called our greatest poet ever. He did write sonnets and longer poems such as “Venus and Adonis”. However most of his best poetry is found in his plays, works that were written to be performed and that were subject to changes depending on how rehearsals and performances went. The texts of his plays were not routinely printed during his lifetime, apart from copies likely to be used by actors. It wasn’t until 1623, seven years after his death, that 36 of his plays were published in the First Folio. People have argued ever since as to how accurate these texts are and even today directors of his dramas play around with the text.
As anyone who has been forced to read one of his plays without the advantage of seeing a performance will know, his plays only really come to life on the stage, the screen or on radio. Whether it be the murder of the poet Cinna after being mistaken for one of the conspirators in “Julius Caesar” or Lady Macbeth trying to wipe imaginary blood from her hands or the courtroom scene in “The Merchant of Venice”, we need to see or hear or have seen or heard these performed to relate emotionally to the words and action. It makes no sense to me to teach Shakespeare merely on the basis of written texts without access to performances.
Secondly, Robert Burns is often referred to as the “Bard of Scotland”. Although he did write page poetry, he is perhaps most famous for his songs. Indeed he considered himself a songwriter, played the fiddle and the cittern and put his words to music he either composed himself or adapted from traditional sources. According to Dr Fred Freeman in his introduction to the CD box set “The Complete Songs of Robert Burns”: …he considered it [songwriting] high art; the ideal medium for much of his creative output….For Burns, composition and editing became, primarily, a matter of what he termed “ballad simplicity”.
As with Dylan, his melodies can enhance or change the meaning of the words, hence for example the debates over which tune provides the best accompaniment to the words of “Auld Lang Syne”. Poems such as the achingly beautiful “Red Red Rose” really do come to life when sung. When folk singer Sheena Wellington sang “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”, Burns’ ode to social justice and internationalism, at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, her performance gave extra relevance to the poem. And reggae-influenced versions of his “The Slave’s Lament” provide additional poignancy and power to the words.
Thirdly, 18th century Highland Gaelic-speaking poet Rob Donn Mackay, who could neither read nor write. He composed his poetry in his head, memorised it and travelled throughout the far north counties of Sutherland and Caithness, reciting his poetry. He also sang many of his poems, sometimes borrowing melodies and sometimes composing his own airs. His wonderful poems have only survived because before his death he dictated them to a scribe. In her 2016 thesis “Rob Donn Mackay: Finding the Music in His Songs” (Edinburgh University), Dr Ellen Beard writes:
…a critical assessment of Rob Donn merely as a poet seriously underestimates his achievement in combining words and music to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Whether Dylan’s poetry works on the page or not is irrelevant because – like much of the work of Shakespeare, Burns and Rob Donn – it was never meant to be consumed that way. Insisting that the page is the standard by which we judge poetry shows either a perverse rewriting of the history of poetry or an ignorance of that history.
One of the cultural features of the second half of the 20th century was the rise of poets who rejected the page as the height of the art form. The Beat Poets like Allen Ginsberg not only saw public readings as a crucial part of their art, but they also performed and collaborated with musicians (in Ginsberg’s case, including Dylan) as well as accompanying themselves. Ginsberg’s angry, hallucinatory, surrealist and sexually explicit masterpiece “Howl” was performed publicly before it was published. According to Ginsberg himself, the structure of the poem is based on bebop, a type of jazz.
In the 1960s, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen decided to try his hand at songwriting. He moved to New York, was for a while involved with Andy Warhol’s “Factory”, began singing at folk festivals and in 1967 released the first of many critically acclaimed albums. His 1993 print collection “Stranger Music” brought together both his published poetry and lyrics of his songs in one volume.
At the same time in Britain, a group of Liverpool poets influenced by the Beat movement and the pop music of the Beatles and other bands from that city, began writing accessible poetry that was performed in public, often with musical accompaniment. The collection “The Mersey Sound” – featuring the poetry of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten – became one of the best selling poetry collections of all time. All three of these poets also worked successfully with musicians, writing songs or adapting their poetry to the music, with Roger McGough’s band Scaffold (which also included Paul McCartney’s brother Mike) even having a number 1 hit in the pop charts with “Lily the Pink”.
Equally as important as the Liverpool poets is Linton Kwesi Johnson who was born in Jamaica and moved to London in 1963. In the early 1970s, influenced by reggae he developed a form of deeply political performance poetry he called dub. He has also been a major influence on the development of rap.
Both the Liverpool poets and the likes of Linton Kwesi Johnson laid the foundations for the development of performance poetry as a major force, one that is still going strong today with poetry slams, pub nights and festivals. In his early days, John Cooper Clarke often performed his poetry to a punk rock accompaniment. Benjamin Zephaniah has used dub and reggae in his work. And more recently, Kae Tempest has become one of the most successful of performance poets, often using the techniques of rap.
No matter how contemporary the likes of Kae Tempest might sound, they and other poets, songwriters and singers – including Bob Dylan – continue to return poetry to its historical and cultural roots as an oral art form. Rather than erecting elitist barriers, we should be celebrating the wonderful diversity of poetry – in print, in performance and accompanied by music.
Kevin Crowe May 2022.
Kevin Crowe Biography:
Kevin was born in Manchester in 1951. He has been a Dylan fan since the mid 1960s, first saw him live in 1969 at the Isle of Wight Festival and has been to numerous concerts since.
Before going to university as a mature student, he worked in various factories and bars. After getting his degree, he worked in social care for many years (including ten years working with people with HIV/AIDS), before moving to the Scottish Highlands with his husband in 1999 to open a bookshop and restaurant.
Kevin has over the years had fiction, poetry and non-fiction published in many magazines, anthologies and in recent years online. He has read his work at many locations, including the Scottish Parliament, Glasgow’s Aye Write Festival, Ullapool Book Festival and John O’ Groats Book Festival. In 2020, he had his collection of short stories “No Home In This World” published by Manchester independent publisher Fly-On-The-Wall Press, the title coming from a song written by Woody Guthrie. Also in 2020, he was appointed as editor of the award-winning Highlands LGBT+ magazine “UnDividingLines”.