Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2008


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The Poetry of Bob Dylan

The Poetry of Bob Dylan
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

by Susan Kietzman ´82

"Stay, lady, stay with your man awhile
Why wait any longer for the world to begin
You can have your cake and eat it too
Why wait any longer for the one you love
When he´s standing in front of you”

The lyrics of “Lay, Lady, Lay” may have been written nearly four decades ago, but a new generation listened with rapt attention as Bob Dylan´s coarse voice filled a Blaustein classroom on a blustery Thursday afternoon in February. After all, the words of Shakespeare and Keats still ring true in modern ears; why not those of a popular rock ´n´ roll artist? The idea that Dylan belongs in the great tradition of lyric poetry is what professors Janet Gezari and Charles Hartman explore with 46 students each week in English 213B, “Bob Dylan.”

“We´re huge admirers of Dylan,” says Gezari, Lucy Marsh Haskell ´19 Professor of English and department chair. “This class has always been there as something Charles and I wanted to do. Dylan stands above the large majority of songwriters of his time. Everybody wanted to be Dylan — even
John Lennon.”

Though new to the Connecticut College classroom, the
study of Dylan´s work is not new to academia. College and
high school instructors across the country have organized
classes to explore and analyze the artist; Stanford University
even held a Bob Dylan conference, 10 years ago, that drew
scholars across many disciplines, from drama and classics to
religious studies.

Hartman, a jazz musician and the College´s poet in
residence, says Dylan “creates an ideal integration of music
and poetry in his songwriting. He is perfectly economical in
his means. Whatever this melody or harmony or these lyrics
need to do, he can do. It´s never safe to assume that Dylan
doesn´t know something.”

In fact, Dylan knows an extraordinary amount — not
just about music and poetry, but about people, especially the
people who surrounded him in the second half of the 20th
century. Known as the “voice of his generation,” a title he
vehemently eschewed, Dylan was nonetheless “very much
an American voice,” Gezari and Hartman say.

“Dylan once said he couldn´t live anywhere but in
America,” Gezari told her students on that Thursday in
February. “His music depends on a shared American language.
If he is the ´voice of his generation,´ then he is also the
voice of generations to come.”

Dylan´s music will be appreciated for years to come because
“his songs matter,” Hartman says later. “His songs are
very particular to a situation and speaker. It is only through
these particular situations that we get to the universal. The
number of people he has inhabited and spoken for and the
scope of his imagination are astonishing. You understand the
songs because you´ve had the experience of being a human
being amongst other human beings.”

The present-day fame of the subject of English 213B no
doubt contributes to the course´s popularity with students
outside the English department. Majoring in disciplines from
philosophy to political science, all are upperclassmen, as they
had priority during registration and the class filled before
sophomores or freshmen had a chance. And there are as many
reasons for taking the class as there are students. Matt Leers
´08, an architecture major, became interested in Dylan a few
years ago after watching some movies about him. The class
offered him a chance to learn more.

“After (watching the movies) I couldn´t stop listening to
Bob Dylan´s first three recorded albums, but realized I didn´t
understand what he was trying to say through his words,” Leers
says. “I was hoping to find some answers concerning Dylan´s
lyrics and to shed a little light on his mysterious persona.
“Never a huge fan of poetry, I remember being anxious
(about this class), thinking we would be comparing him
to Shakespeare or discussing iambic pentameter,” Leers
adds. “We have not done that yet, but we are looking at
Dylan from so many perspectives I would not be all that
surprised if it came up. This class has been a pleasure.”

“The number of people he has
inhabited and spoken for and the scope
of his imagination are astonishing. You
understand the songs because you´ve
had the experience of being a human
being amongst other human beings.”

—Professor Charles Hartman

For Claire Dowd ´08, an English major, the reason is even
simpler: “I was born to take this class,” she says.

“I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, and as I got older, I
cultivated my passion for his music,” Dowd continues. “My
respect and deep appreciation for his talent and intelligence is
really enhanced by this class; it is the perfect setting for analyzing
his work. His lyrics and his impressive knowledge are
simply astounding. It´s my second semester senior year, and
I´m enjoying this opportunity to revel in Bob Dylan´s music.”

The course syllabus is filled with music and song titles
rather than books and chapters. And the homework is more
listening than writing — although a five-page paper and a
group project were required. Classes alternate between lectures
and discussions; attendance isn´t an issue.

“We´re having a wonderful time with this class,” Gezari
says. “The students came to class knowing Dylan through
their parents, but we´re trying to give them a more detailed
view of why Dylan´s important. They´re interested.”

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