Bob Dylan’s lyrics should be studied in schools
OCTOBER 4 IS National Poetry Day, the annual celebration of rhyming (and not-rhyming) launched in 1994 by William Sieghart of the Forward Arts Foundation. In its 14-year existence, it has become a distinctive event – part carnival, part education, entirely a good thing.
This year’s NPD looks set to be one of the most interesting and fruitful yet. The organisers have teamed up with Sony BMG to commission an online secondary-schools project “to celebrate poetry through the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s legendary songs”.
It works like this. The theme of NPD is “Dreams”, and a range of Dylan songs on this subject will be used as the basis of Key Stage 3 and 4 lesson plans. Teachers will be able to download tracks and videos from the Dylan website (www.bobdylan.com); they will be able to request an 18-track sampler from the forthcoming three-CD retrospective compilation (called simply Dylan and out on October 1); they will have access to lesson plans on the NPD website (at www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk), and pupils can enter their own Dylan-in-spired poems for a competition (prizes include a limited-edition Dylan iPod, a Sony television set for their school, and a copy of the new album).
There’s plenty in it for everyone. Sony gets the chance to connect Dylan to an audience younger than those who usually go to his gigs or buy his records, and pupils (not to mention teachers) get a tonic. That’s to say by proving to band-loving children that Dylan’s words are a part of a spectrum of poetry that has formal, orthodox verse at one end, song-lyrics at the other, the project is a golden opportunity to satisfy the requirements of the national curriculum, while liberating it from some of the stuffiness which – sadly but truly – surrounds it for many in their teens.
The lesson plans sensibly don’t exaggerate the problems that they are designed to overcome. Their author Magi Gibson – a distinguished writer for children, and at present writer in residence at the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art – has done her work with a happy mixture of rigour and relaxedness. She takes the various Dylan dream-songs, including Three Angels, I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, as an opportunity to encourage discussion about poetic form, traditional craft and about how pieces of writing often grow from one another ( Saint Augustine takes off from a poem by Alfred Hayes, I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night written in the early 1930s, and adapted into a song).
In other words, she treats them as though they were written by the sort of poet who might more predictably appear in a classroom, inviting pupils to think of Dylan in the same way that they think about other stalwarts of the curriculum. But at the same time, she asks for word-rushes and fancy-flights, for connections with their own experience and ideas, in a way that emphasises the contemporary-personal and breaks free of school bounds.
Might it work better if the lyrics were by bands that pupils know better and listen to more readily? Arctic Monkeys, for example?
It’s difficult to say. On the one hand there would probably be a readier kind of association, and a stronger sense that the arc of poetry is longer than that represented by school anthologies. On the other hand, Dylan is Dylan, and you don’t have to be approximately of his age to see that his lyrics are simply better than those by most other songwriters – better because they are more concentrated, more allusive, more memorable (even without the melodies), more surprising, more risk-taking, more willing to engage with the whole range of human experience.
Earnest minds once used to ask “Keats or Dylan?”. There’s no “or” about it. It’s Keats and Dylan – not just because that formulation fits well into the diverse society that we inhabit, but because Dylan is good enough to be called the heir to (several) great traditions as well as an artist speaking about recognisably “modern times”.
“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second,” he once said. Quite so – even though it is virtually impossible to separate the two. Perhaps one of the unexpected achievements of his later middle-age will be to change our ideas about what is and is not fit to be part of our staple literary diet. If so, it can only encourage other lyricists to follow where he leads – as they have so often before.