Most of us want things to be neat and tidy, to follow a set pattern, perhaps because our teachers beat that idea into our heads from an early age. Or maybe because most of the childhood storybooks and Hollywood movies we grew up with follow a typical pattern. However we got indoctrinated, we have a strong need for a clear beginning, middle, and end.
I was listening to Early Roman Kings the other day. I was struggling to make sense of it. I eventually realized that I was wasting my precious time. Like many Dylan songs, there is no clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. Early Roman Kings should be read as a series of connected themes, not a series of connected events. Read in that fashion, the song makes a lot of “sense”.
For generations that grew up after Dylan, this style is a bit hard to grasp. Not many pop artists work in that manner anymore. I don’t think Taylor Swift is ever going to write anything like Early Roman Kings. But for Dylan, the style is quite natural. He grew up listening to the blues and folk songs. Listen to, for example, the inscrutable – The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird – and it’s easy to see how Dylan developed his style.
Fast forward a few days. I’m reading Dick Davis’ Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz. Davis is an Englishman who spent years in Iran until he was kicked out after the Islamic Revolution. He has studied Persian literature for over thirty years.
I didn’t expect to find any Dylan connections in the book. But I did. His comments about the lack of a “back-story” remind me of my struggle with Early Roman Kings.
He (Hafez) can sound especially like those troubadours who practiced trobar clus (“closed form”), a style of verse deliberately packed with difficulties and allusion likely to be lost on outsiders – a technique which was, as Hafez says in one of his Rubaiyat, meant for “art’s initiates,” excluding those not in the know. He can seem like Shakespeare in his abrupt switches of tone and scope of reference, the way wholly disparate areas of human experience are drawn into the same poetic moment. If we jump forward in time to a poet of a very different kind, Hafez’s poems can remind us of the songs of Bob Dylan, particularly his more meditative ones. Again, there is the music, and also the way a Dylan song often hovers at the edge of the paraphrasable, which might be because we don’t have enough background information to attempt the paraphrase, or because there isn’t a paraphrase, a back-story, to be found at all, simply a series of images that create a pervasive mood and suggest a thematic coherence. There is too the loathing of hypocrisy that comes through in some of Dylan’s songs, the earnest sense, casually conveyed, that life is too serious for posturing and lies. “So let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late” could easily be a line from Hafez.Introduction – Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz – by Dick Davis p. xxxix