One might apply that contrast of [VVilliam| Blake and [P. B.| Shelley to one of the essential differences between Dylan and another poet-singer, Leonard Cohen. Cohen in any case often paddles in the maudlin, but an associated weakness in his work is exactly that Shcllcyan quality of saying, as it were, “Look at me: God, I’m sensitive!” A fundamental strength of Dylan’s sensitivity is to avoid calling attention to itself.
How are we to compare the work of Dylan and Cohen as poet-songwriters? Initially, they differ in their responses to society and the ways in which people are alienated. Dylan wrote and sang explicit protest songs, whereas Cohen expressed the angst of alienation. The differences in the poetry, or song, of Dylan and Cohen can be understood as a result of the different directions from which they invested their lyrics with integrity. Dylan didn’t consciously set out to be a poet. His aim was to become an accomplished folksinger; he even described his early self as a Guthrie jukebox, playing, talking, and singing in the style of his hero. Bonnie Beecher recalls how when the young Dylan was drunk, he would only answer to the name Woody. It was through her that he gained his first exposure to many of the folk and blues artists from which he drew his early repertoire. His poetry very much draws upon the American heritage and fascinating imagery found in the folk and blues tradition. Allen Ginsberg recognized that using these resources, Dylan “built a great twentieth century art out of roots, out of ground minstrelsy, which was a mighty achievement.” There is a spontaneity in the imagery and language derived from this tradition, whereas Cohen’s language and imagery are characterized by precision and clinical execution, emerging out of his studies of poetry in college. He wrote and recited formalistic poetry, then decided that lyric poetry of integrity could also make good songs.
Cohen’s transition from poetry and prose to lyric poetry in song was for him a natural progression. He did not feel that he was rejecting what he had previously embraced, but merely changing the mode of communication. He had collected and sung folk songs for a long time, and while on the island of Hydra he had decided to write some of his own. In conversation with Adrienne Clarkson of Take Thirty, a CBC arts television show, Cohen commented with a note of irony, after singing on television for the first time: “The time is over, Adrienne, when poets sit on marble steps wearing long black capes.” Like Dylan, but not as severely, Cohen incurred the wrath of those who thought he had sold out to popularism. Art simply could not be commercial, and became debased if it tried. Louis Dudek was representative of this view when he stated: “It’s a critical delusion that folk-poetry is the mother tongue of the human race, or that the immediately popularist is the touchstone of art.”
When faced with two different views, implicit and explicit, about the appropriate way to “read” Dylan’s and Cohen’s lyric poetry, how do we differentiate between the validity of the claims? In other words, how should we read Dylan and Cohen? What I will try to develop here is some basic distinctions that will enable us to determine what are and what are not appropriate questions to ask of a particular song/poem. I want to suggest that it is not a uniform set of questions that we ask of the work of an author, and that the key to gaining a better understanding is to be able to identify what questions to ask of what songs/poems. To ask the wrong questions gives rise to misleading or distorted answers.
In order to do this, I am going to distinguish between two approaches to appreciating the lyric poetry of Dylan and Cohen, and for that matter a whole range of other poets and poet-singers. I then want to go on to articulate the aesthetic theories of the philosophers Michael Oakeshott and R. G. Collingwood, and of the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, to show how they are useful in helping us to distinguish the right kinds of questions to ask of which poems/songs. The purpose of invoking such theories is to suggest a pathway beyond the current dominant approaches, not to suggest that this is the only way out. It is a path that allows us to proceed in an interesting and intellectually stimulating direction, but this is not to deny that there may not be others that also lead to equally valid destinations.
The first claim is widespread and dominates the literature and Internet discussion on Dylan; in fact, a whole Web site is devoted to it—Dylan Lyric Commentaries. We can call this the search for referents, and it can be divided into two subcategories: (1) the search for referents in people, places, and objects, or the satisfaction of curiosity; and (2) the search for referents in influences, or the concordance approach. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was less than kind in describing such activities as “collecting-— comparing—compiling—classifying—contradicting,” but they do help to compare and interpret, in this case, the approaches of Dylan and Cohen as poets.
The first predilection for referents in people, places, and objects assumes that the more you know about to what a song refers, the better appreciation you have of it. This is exemplified by Aidan Day in Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. It is an approach that has bedeviled poetry appreciation for decades and has emerged in relation to contemporary music wherever there was an interesting lyric. In 1967, for example, Richard Poirier complained that much of the commentary on the Beatles was marred by research that was largely irrelevant. Knowing the details of Tara Brown’s death, a friend of the Beatles who died in a motor crash and who is alluded to in “A Day in the Life” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), serves to obstruct rather than illuminate the song’s reference to a man in a car and the circumstances of his death at a traffic light. In Dylan’s case, take, for example, “Positively 4th Street,” the single that immediately followed “Like a Rolling Stone” and was recorded four days after the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The song has been widely interpreted as a bitter attack on Dylan’s former friends in the folk world and suggested that the title refers to where he was living on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village at the time. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the song refers to Fourth Street in Minneapolis, where Dylan went to college and dropped out. For this same approach, it is a matter of importance to determine that “Just Like a Woman” is about Edie Sedgwick, or indeed that the “tallest and the blondest girl” in Leonard Cohen’s “Memories” is Sedgwick’s rival, Nico, or that Janis Joplin is the subject of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” For example, something like the following story illuminates or gives meaning to “Just like a Woman.” During the period 1963—1965, Sedgwick was featured in several high-profile magazines, including Time, Life, and Vogue. She was a fashion icon, as well as the star of many of Andy Warhol’s films. She also dated Dylan at a time, Jonathan Taplin suggests, when “his transition from folk purity to the rock insanity was overwhelming him.” Sedgwick lived life on the edge, subject to extreme highs and lows induced by a vicious circle of uppers and downers to keep pace with her frenetic lifestyle. Her flamboyant and confident exterior disguised a deep inner fragility, however. The lines in Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” are taken to be propositions about an identifiable woman, but the Sedgwick referent makes sense of such lines as “with her fog, her amphetamines and her pearls” and “But lately I see her ribbons and her bows / Have fallen from her curls,” and the famous last line of the refrain, “But she breaks just like a little girl.”
Maurice Ratcliff takes the same approach to all of Cohen’s songs. While fully acknowledging that the poet trades in ambiguity, he implicitly conveys the view that we ought to be able to unravel what is ambiguous, and indeed thinks that there are limits to ambiguity beyond which meaning is unintelligible or lost. In discussing “The Old Revolution” (Songs from a Room), Ratcliff asks: “What is the protagonist talking about and why? Ambiguity is all very well, but it seems that here Cohen strayed over the boundary into impression.” The assumption is that the song must have an authorial meaning, and that it is a failure on the part of the poet if he or she does not convey it. The author is much more at home in discussing “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (Songs of Leonard Cohen), because he is able to disentangle the referents and discern the subject matter of the song. “Goodbye,” which was written in 1966 at the Penn Terminal Hotel in New York, although similar in theme to “So Long, Marianne,” which is on the same album, is actually about a different but parallel relationship that had run its course. Ratcliff does raise a note of caution when searching for referents to give a song meaning. He argues, but does not heed the warning himself, that “the story of the song’s genesis underlines the perils of reading too much autobiography into a work of art.” He even concedes that sometimes with poets who thrive on ambiguity the audience has to find the meaning for itself, and in certain songs, such as “The Butcher” (Songsfrom a Room), the meaning is not easily yielded.
We can find ourselves in terrible tangles if we try to tie meaning too literally to outside referents. Ratcliff contends that “First We Take Manhattan” (I’m Your Man) is not a political song because “it neither identifies the causes of problems nor proposes solutions to them.” He is quite right that this is not a finger-pointing song, but wrong to think it is not political because he cannot find the events or injustices to which it refers. Instead, he attaches it to an entirely inappropriate referent by suggesting that it is an allegory for “girding the loins for the rigours of [Cohen’s] forthcoming tour, a call to arms directed at his hand.” The itinerary of touring may well have suggested the imagery, but it does nothing to explain it or to help us appreciate it more. As we have already seen, a poem or a song can be deeply political, representative of a counterculture, and unnervingly unsettling because of what it brings into question, or because the mood is dark and threatening. The disturbing imagery may have no referent that we can identify, the language and meaning may be inseparable, yet they may be profound in their impact on the reader or hearer, as, for example, the menacing tone and allusions in the following lines:
|-- (“First Wc Take Manhattan”)|
Another danger in such an approach, the amassing of more and more detail, to use a cliché, is that we won’t see the forest for the trees. It is a fallacy to believe that gathering new facts about a subject leads to cumulative understanding. Mark Twain puts this much more eloquently when in his Life on the Mississippi he tells of how he came to know every feature of the great river as well as he knew the letters of the alphabet. This in itself was an achievement: “But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while 1 lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river.”
Even where the author appears to invite the link with outside referents, they may serve to obscure rather than illuminate, complicate rather than elucidate, and perhaps intentionally. Take the following lines from Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (Blood on the Tracks): “Situations have ended sad / Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.” At the level of generality the lines are self-explanatory and self-referential. Without knowing anything about Verlaine and Rimbaud, the previous lines indicate that the relationship was certainly less than happy. If we descend into the particulars, however, and anchor the poem to the specifics of the relation between Verlaine and Rimbaud, we raise more questions than we can answer: for example, who in this relation does Dylan identify with? The older Verlaine or the younger, dominant Rimbaud? Although neither admitted that his relationship was homosexual, and in fact denied it in print, it was widely believed to have been so throughout their stormy intermittent periods together, characterized by drunkenness, violent quarrels, and Rimbaud’s quest for power and its exercise by experiencing every type of sin. Their relationship in Paris, London, and Brussels was intermittent between 1871 and 1873, when Verlaine was imprisoned for attempted manslaughter after shooting Rimbaud in the wrist and trying to prevent him from leaving Brussels.
The meaning of statements in this first approach is similar to Friedrich Gottlob Frege’s correlation of the sense and reference of a sentence in the use of language. Frege added a distinction that he deemed irrelevant to the meaning of an expression, what he called its color. Thus, the use of guy, chap, or man as synonyms in a sentence is a matter of coloration rather than propositions. The sense of a sentence has to do with the dictionary definition of the words in the context of the sentence, or at least those that are relevant to the truth value of an expression, and those things to which they refer, the referents of the words. Basically, by identifying Edie Sedgwick as the subject of “Just Like a Woman,” we are able to determine the truth value of the statements. In this respect, we understand poetry just as we would understand any other sentence, as a statement about the world. In this approach meaning is equated with the psychology of the author, that is, with authorial intention, and building up the context assists us in retrieving the intention. In philosophical hermeneutics it has a long and distinguished heritage in Wilhelm Dilthey, and more recently with E. D. Hirsch Jr. As Hirsch suggests, “A text cannot be interpreted from a perspective different from the original author’s. Meaning is understood from the perspective that lends existence to meaning. Any other procedure is not interpretation but authorship.” Stephen Scobie strongly criticizes this approach in his comments on Cohen’s “Suzanne,” when he argues that knowing the subject is Suzanne Vaillancourt adds nothing to our appreciation of the song. What is important is the song itself. Anal retentive textual interpretation is often dismissed as too intellectualist, as, for example, by Robert Sandall, who accuses Aidan Day of subjecting Dylan’s lyrics to tortuous scrutiny. However, it is not that the approach is too intellectualist, but that it is instead noncriteriological, by which I mean that there are very little by way of criteria in terms of which to pronounce one interpretation more convincing than another, and relies more on imaginative creation than reasoned interpretation.
The problem may best be illustrated with reference to the interpretation of political philosophy. One of the most influential historians of political thought in the United States in the latter part of the twentieth century was Leo Strauss. He argued that political philosophy by its very nature is subversive and constituted a threat to authority by questioning the very assumptions upon which political life was organized in any particular community. During periods of persecution it was particularly important that the real meaning of philosophical texts be disguised, for fear of being convicted of heresy and condemned to death. Although the practice of concealing hidden meaning was most imperative during times of persecution, it was in fact a widespread method by which initiates conveyed their secret meanings to each other. In other words, the great texts include an exoteric doctrine designed for general public consumption and an esoteric one addressed to fellow initiates that only they could understand. There is a great difference, however, in claiming that there are hidden meanings in a text and the conceptually different activity of providing the key, or the principles, by which to unlock the meaning. It is at this point that the most tortuous and convoluted interpretative gymnastics are performed. Among Strauss’s assumptions, for example, is that philosophers are so intelligent that they could not possibly make mistakes, so that when we discover an apparent contradiction or mistake, it must be intentional and point to a hidden meaning. Such an assumption is often made of Dylan. For example, Dylan’s misspelling of Hardin, the real-life outlaw in “John Wesley Harding,” the song and the album, has been taken to be meaningful and significant. In Hebrew there are no separate letters for vowels, and the Jewish names for God, Jehovah, or Jaweh may be transliterated as JWH, the initials of John Wesley Hardin. The addition of the g to Hardin is further evidence for some interpreters that the actual referent of the song is God.
The second subspecies of the search for referents is the identification of influences in poetic and musical sources. This approach is exemplified by Michael Gray, Greil Marcus, Christopher Ricks, George Woodcock, Stephen Scobie, Michael Ondaatje, and Desmond Pacey, to different degrees. The assumption is that if we can discover that someone wrote or sang something similar elsewhere, this adds to our understanding of what Dylan or Cohen have wrote and sung. Both Marcus and Gray are dismissive of what the latter calls “superficial message hunting.” In direct criticism of A. J. Weberman, the inventor of garbology, who maintains that the contents of a subject’s garbage can help draw conclusions about that person’s life, Marcus argues that it is impossible to understand “Just Like a Woman” by making logical connections between it and transvestites because of the reference to Queen Mary, or Britain because of the use of the word Jog, even if they are the correct referents. Scobie goes in for extensive interpretation of this kind, as, for example, in Alias Bob Dylan. Although Scobie explicitly disavows the search for factual referents, for example, by pointing out the futility of linking Edie Sedgwick and Bob Neuvvirth with “She’s Your Lover Now” (The Bootleg Series), he nevertheless thinks that the critic has to engage with the complexity of the text. He deals with the text almost like a crossword puzzle, in which the clues point us toward the answers.
So the question remains, is the alternative nothing more than superficial influence hunting? Certainly the method is one that could be affected by the use of a poetry, or blues, concordance. We put in a search for certain words or phrases and match them with similar words and phrases in Dylan’s songs. When we find such resemblances, they are linked together not by evidence, but by subjective intuitions. The connections are extremely tenuous, made by the use of deliberately imprecise language. Hence, for example, when linking Dylan’s work with other poets, Michael Gray uses such connecting lines as “It seems to me to contain many recollections of major English poets,” it “sometimes calls John Donne to mind,” “The techniques resemble each other,” it “seems to remind one vaguely,” “There is a keen correspondence,” a “minor correspondence,” and even “an exact echo.” We are also told that “Dylan inherits ideas from [Kenneth] Patchen too, I think—or again, perhaps just from the milieu that Patchen was a creative part of.”
Patrick Crotty is similarly imprecise in linking influences to Dylan by using tentative and evasive language. For example, he says, “There may [my emphasis] be a number of scriptural citations in ‘When the Ship Comes In’: The opening phrase of the [Syrian Apocalypse of] Baruch quotation raises the intriguing possibility that the title track of The Times They Are A-Changin’ should be counted among Dylan’s Apocalyptic songs.” In reference to “When the Ship Comes In,” Crotty says it “appears to allude to what is perhaps the most famous phrase in Revelation, ‘And there was no more sea’ (21:1).” Greil Marcus’s approach is much more sophisticated and evocative. In exploring the breadth and depth of the The Basement Tapes (1975), he tries to capture what Dylan and The Band “took out of the air” and what they put back into it. They captured, not abstractions, but the ghosts of the real sons and daughters of American history, manifest for a moment on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, “the founding document of the American folk revival.” The Basement Tapes were in fact a “shambling” version of this anthology.
Cohen’s work has been approached in the same way by, for example, Michael Ondaatje, George Woodcock, Desmond Pacey, and Stephen Scobie. Ondaatje suggests the poem “Lovers,” from Let Us Compare Mythologies, exhibits a bitter irony reminiscent of A. M. Klein. Both writers, he claims, employ similar poetic and rhetorical tricks: “Apart from the obvious similarities—such as the exotic words and worlds, and a biblical style— there is the same gentle irony about oneself and about one’s childhood heroism.” In Collected Poems we find Dylan Thomas’s “tousled ghost,” as well as some deft parodying of T. S. Eliot. We also find borrowings from and echoes of W. H. Auden and Edith Sitwell. In Recent Songs, “The Gypsy’s Wife,” for example, “echoes, if it does not rely on, the Blood Wedding of [Federico García] Lorca, no less.” The fact that Lorca wrote Gypsy Ballads is hardly sufficient grounds to link Lorca’s relentlessly bleak play, with Cohen’s lyrics, which he says himself relate to the stained relationship he was in with Suzanne Elrod at the time it was breaking down. The emotion expressed is that of the conflicting feelings of wanting to break free, while at the same time jealousy that someone else may be in her arms. Desmond Pacey juxtaposes Cohen with William Wordsworth, because the former resembles the latter in achieving magical clarity, not by looking at the world in generalities or through scientific concepts, but by close examination of detail, such as the streaks on a designated tulip. This juxtaposition is justified because at least once there is “an obvious echo” of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” in Beautiful Losers. Both poets exemplify a search for sensual exactitude. This is not to suggest, of course, that what is borrowed may occasionally be transformed into an original statement, as, for example, in “Travel” from The Spice-Box of Earth, in which the lines “Horizons keep the soft line of your cheeks / The windy sky’s a locket for your hair” follows lines that are no more than serviceable Yeats, but with the word horizons, “a new spirit enters-—that of a poet capable of utterly individual statement within the convention, and from this point the resemblance to Yeats becomes ambivalent. These lines are no longer good imitation Yeats; they are lines which only Yeats could have imitated.” Scobie, in reading Let Us Compare Mythologies, sees “reminiscences of Eliot” in “Rededication,” and of John Donne in “The Fly.” He contends that Cohen’s poem is a pale imitation of Donne’s “The Flea.”
The problem with the search for influence and origins, as we have seen, is that of infinite regress. For example, to say something like “Dylan shares with Eliot the use of urban imagery and the expression of urban disillusionment” is to invite the process of infinite regress. It is very obvious that Dylan shares this with a whole range of other poets, including his contemporary Leonard Cohen and his predecessors Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Lorca. It should come as no surprise that poets, artists, and philosophers share things with others of their kind. Indeed, Pablo Picasso made no apology for his pillaging of past art, which he nevertheless transformed and made his own. He famously said, “When there is something to steal, I steal.” The hermeneutic theorist Wilhelm Dilthey pronounced one of the most telling indictments. Rudolph Makkreel nicely encapsulates Dilthey’s view: “Origins as such cannot provide meaning: they, in effect, take away the meaning that the phenomenon possesses by deriving it as a mere effect of something else.”
Let us look at the case of Robert Browning to illustrate more concretely the point that I am trying to make. Gray spends a great deal of time detailing what he sees as the resemblances between Dylan and Browning. In this concordance approach, what Gray misses entirely is the scientific and philosophical worldviews that converge in Browning, and which are completely absent from Dylan, and without which any resemblances are superficial. What is called the metaphysical element, the underlying philosophy that gives unity to all his works is an important factor in understanding him and the work that he produced. Browning tries to explain all things, even good and evil, as manifestations of the principle of love. Browning relies in his poetry on the underlying assumptions of the day. He assumes, for example, the principle of evolution at work in human experience, and also subscribes to philosophical idealism, the view that the mind constitutes reality, the idea that nature and spirit are inseparable, not that nature is intelligent, but that it is intelligible to mind and is therefore mind dependent. Ultimately, however, and at considerable variance from Dylan, Browning’s whole outlook of life expressed in his poems rests upon agnosticism and the idea that truth is unattainable.
The same philosophical influence pervades T. S. Eliot. Eliot made a thorough study of F. H. Bradley while at Oxford University in 1914, had studied under the American idealist Josiah Royce at Harvard University, and while at Oxford came under the sway of the likes of J. A. Smith, who introduced Italian idealism into Britain. Eliot wrote a Ph.D. thesis on Bradley, which he never formally defended, thus failing to fulfill a condition of receiving the degree. Gray cites an appreciation by F. R. Leavis of Eliot’s poetry, remarking that it is every bit as applicable to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as it is of Eliot. The line quoted from Leavis relates to “poetry that freely expresses a modern sensibility, the … modes of experience of one fully alive in his own age.” This was written in 1932 while Leavis was at Cambridge University and shortly after he established the literary criticism journal Scrutiny. Leavis’s reference to the “modes of experience” is in fact an allusion to the philosophical idealism of Michael Oakeshott, who was also working at Cambridge and a contributor to Scrutiny in 1931, as well as editor of The Cambridge Review.
The second approach to appreciating the lyrical poetry of a song is what we may call, for want of a better term, the emotional response, and it implicitly rejects this narrow conception of language. In this respect, the words are not taken as statements. The words are indeed colors on the poet’s palette that are used to conjure powerful images that have the capacity to move us emotionally without having a determinate meaning or propositional value. This is what Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys meant when he said that the lyrics of REM’s “Losing My Religion” were brilliant, despite the fact that he didn’t have a clue what they meant. Kenneth Allsop was quick to pick up the significance of Dylan’s shift to art as the expression of emotion, or what Lorca described as inspirational poetry. Certain types of questions were not applicable. After quoting a few lines of “She Belongs to Me” (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965), Allsop exclaims: “What does it mean? What does it matter? It arrows, as poetry should, beyond the compartments of literal meaning …” This is also what Paul Williams means when he writes that asking who the real Bob Dylan is and what he is really trying to say is not, strictly speaking, answerable. Williams argues that he can listen to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (Blonde on Blonde) and empathize with the song, feel what it is about, because the words successfully communicate an emotion despite the fact that the line “My warehouse eyes and my Arabian drum” have no clear meaning to him, but nevertheless have a clear relevance in his own understanding of the song. In his view, art is not interpreted, but experienced. For Williams, The Basement Tapes signifies the point at which Dylan purposely goes beyond the conscious statement. More recently, after quoting the first four lines of “I Want You,” John Harris asks: “What is all that about? It probably doesn’t matter. It sounds beautiful … ” Though not wanting to banish analysis from art, Henry Jones warns that it destroys the very thing that it analyzes: “The beauty of form and the music of speech which criticism destroys, and to which philosophy is, at best, indifferent, are elements essential to poetry.” At the less adventurous end of the scale, it is the determination to take texts out of their contexts, and read them as self-contained works.
Here the text distances itself from the author in a process that Paul Ricoeur calls distanciation. The text is gradually severed from the intention of the author, its contextual referents, and joins the company of a quasi-world of texts. It represents the move away from epistemological hermeneutics, which links the meaning of a text to the author’s intentions. Dylan himself was well aware of this process. He maintained that anyone who has a message learns from experience that it cannot be represented in song without becoming something different: “A song leaves your mouth just as soon as it leaves your hands.”
Instead of linking the meaning of a text to the intention of the author, Hans-Georg Gadamer puts forward an ontological hermeneutics, which is suggested to him by Martin Heidegger’s notion of “being there in the world.” The question for Gadamer becomes not how should we interpret texts, which is an epistemological question relating to the acquisition of knowledge, but instead, what happens to us every time we interpret a text, which is an ontological question about the nature of our being. The answer is that a text is articulated within a tradition, even if it is reacting to that tradition, and projects in front of itself a horizon. The person trying to understand such a text also stands at a point in this tradition, and has a forestructure of meanings with which to encounter the text, what Gadamer calls prejudice in a nonpejorative sense. Any understanding or experiencing of texts constitutes a “fusion of horizons.”
At this point, I want to enlist the service of R. G. Collingwood’s widely read and influential theory of art, which covers not only fine art, but all forms of artistic expression. I want to contrast this with the less well known theory of Michael Oakeshott, who denies that art is the expression of emotion. I will then extend the typology by looking briefly at Lorca’s theory. The reason for doing this is to have some point of reference by which to explore the changes within Bob Dylan’s work, and between his poetry and that of Leonard Cohen. The purpose is not to deny or confirm any of the three theories.
R. G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art (1937) is a book that tries to distinguish art from craft, and pseudo-art from art proper. Craft is essentially utilitarian, having a value not in itself, but for the use to which it is put. By acquiring and developing certain technical skills, the craftsperson can conceive of an object and produce it according to that plan. Take, for example, the various statues and paintings found inside the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. Craftsmen produced the artifacts according to the religious conventions of the time, designed to assist the body of the pharaoh into the afterlife. Although they may be beautifully executed, they are not meant to be viewed or displayed. They are objects conceived of as a means—end relation. The objects are the means to an end, in this case to ward off evil spirits and to assist the pharaoh on his journey. Here the objects do not express the emotion of the craftsman. It is undoubtedly the case that they may incidentally do this, and border upon something like art. Art proper, Collingwood argues, is often confused with art as magic and art as amusement. Art as magic shares with craft a utilitarian function, but in addition it is designed to arouse emotions in the community to which it is addressed. It has a practical purpose in that the emotions that are aroused are channeled into an activity for some perceived social benefit. A fertility dance, for example, is designed to arouse emotions of love and desire, to be channeled into socially beneficial and institutionally sanctioned relationships between men and women. In so far as art as emotion also suppresses some emotions that are not socially beneficial, art as magic is a denial and perversion of art. A war dance, for example, is meant to arouse emotions of fearfulness and suppress those of fear, channeling the positive emotions into the activity of war. Art proper, in Collingwood’s view, is the expression of emotion. The emotion that is expressed is not preconceived. It is not first formulated and then expressed. It is expressed in the artistic act itself and inseparable from it. Nor does the production of the work of art have an ulterior purpose, but its success depends on evoking that same emotion in the audience and thus contributes to the viewer’s own self-understanding of his or her emotional life.
Although many of the details of Collingwood’s theory may be challenged by aestheticians, the idea that art is the expression of emotion has widespread support. Paul Williams in his book on Dylan talks of artistic performance as the expression of emotion, or of what the performer is feeling at that particular time. In contrast to this view, Michael Oakeshott takes poetry to be a certain way of imagining, distinct from practical, scientific, or historical images. What distinguishes the voice of poetry in the conversation of humanity from the other voices is its manner of being active. This activity is contemplating or delighting in the making of images. They are, as opposed to the images in other idioms of discourse, “mere” images. They are not facts about the world, because they are not propositions, and here truth and falsity are inappropriate terms in which to appreciate them. You do not ask of the images, could this have happened, is it possible or probable or just an illusion or make-believe, because to ask these questions assumes the distinction between fact and not fact, which is out of place in poetic contemplative imagining.
Furthermore, they are present images; they have no past or future. They are delighted in for what they are, rather than for what they are related to, that is, the occasions that may have inspired them. A photograph may lie if it purports to be a true likeness of its subject, but a poetic image cannot lie because it affirms nothing. It is irrelevant to the work of art that it does not faithfully represent the subject. Paul Cézanne’s Rocky Scenery of Provence is a composition of irregular shapes of color comprising an image whose aesthetic quality has nothing to do with whether it looks like Provence or not, and the appeal of Vincent van Gogh’s cornfields does not require that the corn and the clouds really swirl in harmony in the south of France.
Van Gogh’s Starry Night is of no practical use to the traveler wanting to get from one place to another without the aid of a map, and scientifically it is a travesty, but to judge its practical or scientific value is to misunderstand it. Van Gogh’s Starry Night exists only in the poetic image that he has created. The arrangement and diction of the contemplative images are what distinguishes one poet from another; the symbols are not interchangeable. To substitute one as a synonym for another destroys the image. Take, for example, the following lines: “In this room the heat pipes just cough” (“Visions of Johanna”). To substitute “The central heating in this room is inadequate” is practically to say the same thing, but the poetic image is destroyed.
Why, then, are poetic images mere images? It is because the relation between symbol (language) and meaning (thought) is different in poetry from the relation in other modes of experience. This is a view Oakeshott shares with Collingwood who, in Speculum Mentis, distinguishes, art, religion, science, history, and philosophy with reference to their different relations between symbol and meaning. In our everyday practical lives, for example, each symbol, or word has a determinate referent or signification. The more determinate, the better the communication. If I ask for a loaf of bread, I am using a symbol to evoke an image, not to create one. I am not trying to give a novel nuance to the symbol, merely to be understood in a settled language. In other words, meaning and symbol are distinct, but not radically separable, because in this mode “every word has its proper reference or signification.” The symbol is separable from and the means by which we convey meaning. The reason why art or poetry is different is because there is no separation of symbol and meaning: a poetic image is its meaning; it symbolizes nothing outside of itself. This view is confirmed by fellow idealist Henry Jones in his study of Browning. He contends that the worth of a work of art “must be recognised as lying wholly within itself,” and that in it “thought and expression are inseparable.”
Oakeshott explicitly denies that poetry is the expression of emotion designed to evoke the same emotion in the audience. If he intended his target to be Collingwood, then he misses it. Collingwood is unequivocal in ruling out a means to an end relationship in art, which the idea of design and execution posits. The emotion is only discovered in its expression. The ability to evoke that same emotion in others is the criterion of good art. Oakeshott argues that although the idea that art is the expression of emotion is commonly held, it rests on the mistaken view that poetry must be in some way informative and instructive. The poet must have undergone the emotion from which the poetic image derives. This, Oakeshott argues, “makes a necessity of what is no more than an unlikely possibility.” It is important to emphasize that Oakeshott is trying to establish what makes the poetic utterance unique; he is not suggesting that poets only contemplate or delight in images, only that when they do anything else, it is not poetry.
Let us now look at how the distinction between art as magic, art as delighting in and contemplating imaginings, may further be extended. Lorca’s New York poems mark a significant development in his style, from what he calls the poetry of imagination to the poetry of inspiration. This distinction is elaborated in a number of lectures variously reported in the press and collected under the title “Imagination, Inspiration, Evasion.” Imagination is synonymous with the aptitude we have for discovery. It enables us to illuminate what is hidden and to breathe life into fragments of reality to which humanity is blind. Imaginative poetry, however, has horizons and is constrained by reality. Imaginative poetry is constrained by the laws of logic and reason; it makes connections with the world, discovering unexpected relations between objects and ideas, and in doing so abates mystery. It is the poetry that explores and describes the universe. As Lorca suggests: “One’s imagination needs objects, landscapes, numbers and planets and the relationship between them within the purest form of logic is vital.” It is the poetry that explores and describes the universe.
Lorca argues that imagination is located within human logic and controlled by reason. It is a special way of creating that requires order and boundaries. Imagination is the starting point in poetry, and the poet constructs a tower against the elements and against mystery. His voice is listened to because he creates order, but he finds it difficult to inspire intense emotions free from constraints. Imagination is ultimately impoverished, and poetic imagination even more so. Visible reality is far more nuanced than we imagine, and far more poetic than imagination can comprehend, as is often evidenced in the conflict between scientific reality and imaginary myths. For example, imagination has attributed to giants the construction of huge grottoes and cities of enchantment. We have subsequently realized that they were created by continuous patient and eternal drops of water, the triumph of reality over imagination. Or more correctly, imagination becomes conscious of its shortcomings. Lorca argues that
imagination seemed to be operating in a logical manner when it attributed to giants that which did, indeed, seem to be the work of giants. However, scientific reality, poetic to the extreme and beyond the logical field, showed us that the truth was to be found in eternal, crystal-clear water droplets. It is a great deal more beautiful to think that a grotto is the result of the mysterious caprice of water bound and governed by eternal laws, than the caprices of some giants which have no more meaning than that of an explanation.
The poetry of inspiration, on the other hand, acknowledges mystery and moves in a world of poetic harmony and order that avoids imaginative reality with its currently perceived norms of beauty and ugliness, and enters instead into a poetic reality far more astonishing, sometimes characterized by tenderness and sometimes by immensely deep cruelty. It is elusive and evades reality by tracing the pathway of dreams that leads in the subconscious to an unsuspected fact. The traditional metaphor in poetry gives way to the poetic fact, which is tied to poetic logic. The order and balance of imagination often give way to the incongruity of inspiration. In this respect, the poem is a “self-sufficient entity without reference to any reality outside itself.” Poetry of inspiration breaks free from logical control and passionately rejects the temptation to be understood. In Lorca’s view, poetry cannot be understood; it is received, not analyzed. It is counter to intelligence and the received order of things. The poet of inspiration has to look at the world with the eyes of a child, and when asking for the moon truly believe that someone will reach out and place it in his hands. In sum, then, the poet of imagination is constrained by human logic, abating mystery by explaining the inexplicable, whereas the poet of inspiration is set free by poetic logic, acknowledging that not everything has a cause and effect, and that pure reality evades explanation. The implication seems to be that imaginative poetry craves to be understood and makes propositions about reality that can be explored and refuted. Inspirational poetry delights in mystery, rejects the temptation to be understood, and presents images to which truth and falsity are inapplicable.
The poetry of inspiration, on the other hand, acknowledges mystery; it is elusive and evades reality. The traditional metaphor in poetry gives way to the poetic fact that is tied to poetic logic. Michael Oakeshott has something similar in mind when he characterizes poetic imagining as contemplative. You do not ask of the images whether they are fact or not fact. They are not propositions about the world to which truth and falsity are applicable; they are images to be delighted in.
Taken together, these theorists enable us to construct a view of poetry that is capable of characterizing the overlapping and concurrent forms of poetic expression found in Dylan’s work. The first phase is pseudo art, or art as magic, having a preconceived purpose and desired practical effect, represented by the “topical” or “finger-pointing” songs. Second, we have art as the expression of emotion, or imaginative art, which has no preconceived purpose or desired practical effect, but which nevertheless expresses what the artist is feeling. Here the logic of reality is explored, the unexpected connections exposed, and the imagery embedded in occasions or situations. In this category we can place such songs as “My Back Pages,” “Ballad in Plain D” and “Chimes of Freedom” (all from Another Side of Bob Dylan), and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Bringing It All Back Home). Third, we have what Oakeshott refers to as a delighting in images, and what Lorca calls inspirational poetry, with no necessary external referents and with an internal logic of its own. This form of poetry is typically represented by such songs as “Hard Rain’s Α-Gonna Fall” (Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), “Tombstone Blues” and “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited), and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde). Dylan appears to be acknowledging this distinction in an interview he gave in the summer of 1965. When asked whether he was trying to bring order from the chaos of the world, Dylan answered “No.” He simply accepted the world, saying “I don’t know what the songs I write are. That’s all I do is write songs, right?” Furthermore, I want to suggest that Leonard Cohen predominantly inhabits the world of the second and third understandings of art.
To misunderstand the poetic phase may lead to absurd conclusions. Let me illustrate with an example from C. P. Lee’s Like the Night. In interpreting Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” Lee cites the opening line: “Nobody feels any pain.” In taking this statement to be a proposition, Lee offers a contorted and absurdly literal analysis of the song: “Is this one of the greatest ironic statements in the history of the universe? Everybody feels pain of some sort at some time or another.” When taken as an expression of emotion, or as imaginative poetry, the question of whether the statement is right or wrong does not arise: “Nobody feels any pain / Tonight as I stand inside the rain.” Taken as an expression of emotion, it conveys self-absorption, despondency, resignation—an obliviousness to the world and the feelings of other individuals, because rain serves to isolate the self and its thoughts. As imaginative poetry, the lyrics are a series of images:
Each line is an image, and it makes no difference to the appreciation of that imagery whether Edie Sedgwick is or is not the subject of the song. This is the point that Bob Dylan is making when, in talking of the film Renaldo and Clara, he says, “When you go to a movie, do you ask what does that person do in real life?”
What I want to suggest, then, is that there is a point at which Dylan ceases to be only a craftsman, ceases to have only a preconceived idea with a determinate purpose, ceases to express his emotion, which was largely anger, only by writing songs, and came to express it instead in writing songs. This, I think, is what he was trying to say in October 1965 when he commented that “1 don’t write now unless it just happens.” In the 1966 Playboy interview he asserted: “I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung.” The process by which “Like a Rolling Stone” became a song confirms this. Dylan’s diversions into free-form prose and poetry, and even playwriting, were an expression of his frustration at the restrict! veness of the medium of the song in which to express himself. “Like a Rolling Stone” was a spontaneous expression of the anger and frustration he felt at the sterility of his art. He was bored with what he was doing and dissatisfied with what he had produced. On the airplane home from London after his short 1965 acoustic tour and his disastrous and abortive attempt to create a new sound with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, he vented his anger in a flow of consciousness with no preconceived subject and at an abstract focal point. At this stage, “it was ten pages long, it wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest.”
M. L. Rosenthal, the New York teacher and well-known critic, disparaged Cohen’s lyric poetry for having little or no meaning. Paul Barrera at first glance seems to imply that the search for the author’s meaning is futile, but then relents by suggesting that Cohen’s ambiguities are something like cryptic crossword clues, and the reader must try to break the poetic code. There is a note of disappointment when he declares that Book of Mercy (1984) is so personal that “it is impossible to break through to the inner meanings.” Doug Beardsley, a contemporary of Cohen in Montreal, perceptively appreciated that such comments, though literally true, miss the whole point of what some poets, at least, are doing. It was the aura and sense of the mysterious that the lyrics conjured, not their meaning that mattered. Douglas Barbour emphasizes the nonpropositional character of poetry in reviewing Cohen’s Selected Poems (1968). Barbour talks of “a poetry of enigma, where often it is impossible to know what is happening in the poem even while it exercises its charm upon you.” Lorca’s understanding of the poetry of inspiration shows a sensitivity to the medium far more sophisticated than that of Rosenthal, and is consistent with Cohen’s description of what is appropriate and inappropriate to ask of a poem. The poet is not absolved from clarity by immersing himself in ambiguity:
There is a clarity that is perceived by the heart and clarity that is perceived by the mind. You know, clarity is not a fixed idea. Sometimes something that is clear to the heart needs quite complex expression. You just let the words or tune speak to you and it’s very clear. You give yourself to the kiss or the embrace and while it is going on there’s not any need to know what is going on. You just dissolve into it… . But if there is an obscurity in my work, it’s something that no one can penetrate, not even me… . You just try to be faithful to that interior landscape that has its own rules, its own mechanisms, and it’s important to be faithful to them. If someone says “I love the song, what the fuck does it mean?” the question is not as important as the declaration.
The work itself, Cohen argued elsewhere, is beyond significance and meaning. Metaphorically the work is a diamond that the poet cuts and polishes, reflecting, refracting, and amplifying light. Poetry is nevertheless an activity that is not merely summoned or invoked; it is not self-consciously premeditated, and the images present themselves as a consequence of the desperate and dismal lost battles of life.
I think that we can detect in Cohen a self-conscious move from the poetry of imagination to the poetry of inspiration. I am not suggesting a discontinuity here, because many of the themes are enduring; it is the imagery with which the themes are portrayed that become more surrealistic, sinister, and even starkly frightening. Flowersfor Hitler is the collection that manifests this completion of the transition that had already been taking place in individual poems previously. It is a book that is far less discerning than his previous books of poetry, and which includes poems that are awkward and underworked, many of which exhibit the philosophy of Irving Layton that the poet should just publish everything and that time will filter out the bad. Cohen deliberately sets out to shock, by casting off an image that he misleadingly calls “the golden boy,” implying that his previous poetry did not contain similarly disturbing images. He wanted to move, he said, in the less socially acceptable dung pile of the writer at the front line. The subjects he used for the poems were not addressed directly, but tackled by employing symbolist and surrealist imagery. The book is, in a sense, a self-conscious revolt against style, a deliberate attempt to deny that the poems have any style. As Scobie points out, the pose of denying that the poems have style is itself a style. He recognizes that what Cohen is doing in much of the imagery is not to convey a literal or propositional meaning but instead to project the general atmosphere and tone of the book. The content is political, not in any finger-pointing way, but in that it accentuates for view the most ugly, decadent, disjointed, sinister and threatening underlying realities, not as aspects of life, but present in all of life—the extraordinary in the ordinary, and, what is worst, the ordinariness of the extraordinary.
 Cited in L. S. Dorman and C. L. Rawlins, Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart (London: Omnibus Press, 1990), 178.
 Quoted in George Stein, Edie: An American Biography (New York: Dell, 1983), 228.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 80.
 From The New Oxford Book of English Prose , ed. John Gross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 533–534.
 London Sunday Times, July 17, 1988.
 Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1952) . One of his most famous interpretations is that of Niccolò Machiavelli as the most evil man in history. See Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1969).
 Gray, Song and Dance Man III, I.
 Gray, Song and Dance Man III, 54, 65, 70, 76, 77.
 Rowman and Rawlins, Prophet of the Heart, 306.
 Desmond Pacey, “The Phenomenon of Leonard Cohen ,” Canadian Literature 34 (1967) . In fairness, it must be added that Pacey’s intention is to show how the book Beautiful Losers is the culmination of Cohen’s own work and artistic development and not the intimation of that of others.
 Woodcock, “The Song of the Sirens,” 156–157.
 Scobie, Leonard Cohen, 24.
 Gray, Song and Dance Man III, 72.
 Gray, Song and Dance Man III, 71, citing F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (1932).
 Cited in Roddy Lumsden, “While the King Was Looking Down,” in The Message: Crossing the Tracks between Poetry and Pop , ed. Roddy Lumsden and Stephen Troussé (London: The Poetry Society, 1999), 95.
 Jones, Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher, 2nd ed., 3.
 Scobie, Leonard Cohen, xi.
 Bob Dylan, in the 1966 Playboy interview, reprinted in Bob Dylan: The Early Years—a Retrospective , ed. Craig McGregor (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990; first published 1972), 132.
 See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1985).
 Ibid., 527.
 Jones, Browning as a Religious and Philosophical Teacher, 3.
 Oakeshott, “Voice of Poetry,” 524.
 Federico García Lorca, “Imaginación, inspiración, evasión,” in Obras completas III: prosa , ed. Miguel García-Posada (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 1997) . The quotation comes from “El Defensor de Grenada ,” Granada , October 11, 1928 . I am indebted to Lisa Davies for translating the text.
 The text comes from “El Sol,” Madrid, February 16, 1929.
 Oakcshott, “Voice of Poetry,” 488-541.
 Cited by Allen Ginsberg, “Bob Dylan and Rcnaldo and Clara,” in Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan , ed. John Bauldic (New York: Citadel Press, 1991), 122.
 Cited in Clinton Heylin, Dylan the Biography: Behind the Shades (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998: first published 1991), 125.
 Cited in Heylin, Behind the Shades, 129.
 Douglas Barbour, “Canadian Books ,” Dalhousie Review 58 (1968): 568. Reprinted in Leonard Cohen: The Artist and His Critics , ed. Michael Gnarowski (Toronto: McGraw-Hill: 1976), 39.
 Cohen interviewed by Stephen Williams, “The Confessions of Leonard Cohen ,” Toronto Life (February 1978): 48.
 Scobie, Leonard Cohen, 46.