As a teen, I used to say that Dylan would go down as the greatest poet of the twentieth century. Now, many say that. Interestingly, Dylan himself has said he no longer has that ability. In a way, genius is elusive, even though a person may be brilliant. Also interesting, it has been said that most brilliant works came about like Dylan’s, when the genius was in their twenties or early thirties.
I believe the key to understanding Dylan’s lyrics often is in feeling how the words make you feel… how he must have felt to write them. He captures subtle, elusive, abstract, yet often universal feelings with his words. He makes compelling points not just with reason, but by conveying shades, hues, as well as passions and convictions with the feelings he conveys. That is just my perspective on his genius. I’ve enjoyed going over various lyrics of his in some of our classes.
An example from the first verse of “My Back Pages”:
Crimson flames tied through my ears
Referring to his young idealized ‘crimson’ notions… passions, convictions, and black and white ‘clarity trips’. Dylan starting with the word “crimson” is, in itself, a good example… feeling of noble, god-like, royal, passionate, lofty, superior. Sarcasm is common in his lyrics. It’s source, I believe, is that he conceptualized the Transcendent (for example, his song “Gates of Eden”), but had no clear and direct experience of it. So, the dichotomy of relativity verses the Absolute, the resolution of paradox, eluded him.
Still today, people cling to their clarity-trip, belief system perspectives as truth. Even to the extent that they wage war and devote their lives to them, limited as they are. Life is paradox. It is one thing to understand that intellectually. It is quite another to live it, to be unbounded—free of limitation.
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Realizing now that his thoughts were narrow, belief system traps.
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Referring to how he attacked world events with his perspectives.
Using ideas as my maps
His perspectives led him by the nose.
We’ll meet on edges, soon, said I
Cutting edges of debate, confrontation, etc.
Proud ‘neath heated brow
He was ready to fight proudly for his perspectives.
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
Thank you, I enjoyed reading and thinking about this blog.
I really like the refrain of this song. I think about how when I was younger I was so certain that my beliefs and perspectives were right. You can feel Dylan’s sense of the rightness of his convictions, too. But life has humbled me in many ways, and given me more humility; an openness to being wrong, to not knowing. Which, in an odd way, feels akin to innocence: “I’m younger than that now.”
Yes indeed Liz, these days it is evidently vogue for everyone to hold to their perspective as truth. And once a perspective is taken on, ‘the truth just twists’ (Gates of Eden—Dylan again) to uphold their perspective! Remarkable …
Humility is indeed the flip side of wisdom…
In their 20s and 30s …seems a bit green to really know. For the most part, Dylan’s words stopped working for me… He seemed to be making more commentary, and less enquiry… Maybe why his genius faded. He started to believe his own genius. Dylan also said, he did not know where the words came from when he wrote them…
“How can a man sit down to write, when he has not yet stood up to live?”
To The Man in the Mirror,
Yes, there is indeed tragedy to the story. And from the look in his eyes, it seems none of us know his tragedy better than he.