Bob Dylan, The Poet

Bob Dylan, the poet, has been singing more than 50 years, but have you ever really stopped to listen to the words? Now that Dylan is a Nobel giant of literature, we asked Christopher Ricks, professor of English at Boston University, for a line-by-line, close-reading of a few lyrical wonders.


 First page of “Like A Rolling Stone” manuscript.

Listening to Dylan the poet, you hear many things: rural protest storyteller, Greenwich village freewheeler, king of rock surrealism. A people’s poet and songster (in the tradition of Robert Burns), a modernist beatnik (in the zone of Allen Ginsburg), a classic versifier (in the bardic tradition of Orpheus—that’s what Salman Rushdie says), and a prolific quoter and sampler (in the old, weird, American blues style, as Greil Marcus says). The novelist Francine Prose hears Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman; the journalist Charlie Pierce hears gonzo journalism. Only Ricks would dare to compare Dylan to literary jumbos like Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Eliot.

Of course, Dylan is in a category of his own (not just because, unlike most writers, Dylan is heard through records, radio, and on stage); in fact, Ricks contends that Dylan the “greatest living user of the English language.”


Here are some of our favorite annotations from Ricks:

Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town

Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance

One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants

And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go

As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Christopher Ricks: Hanging is lynching… Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if “selling postcards of the hanging” was only a surrealist sickness. No, no. It was the American way of life. It was quite central. So then you move into these things that are surrealist, all right. “Painting the passports brown.” Oh, that’s “painting the town red.” And the town is going to turn up a moment later in the song. So you’ve got this strange feeling that you often have in a dream, that there’s a word just below the surface, there’s some sort of link, there are strange things floating one into the other. Is the “blind commissioner” a commissioner who is blind, or a commissioner for the blind? It’s blind partly because you’re visualizing things. Sound wonderfully visualizes.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen

She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage

And never sat once at the head of the table

And didn’t even talk to the people at the table

Who just cleaned up all the food from the table

And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level

Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane

That sailed through the air and came down through the room

Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle

And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger

And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears

Take the rag away from your face

Now ain’t the time for your tears

Ricks: Cain, as the first killer, turns up in many of Dylan’s songs. So the question is, when you sing a word like “cane,” it’s identical in sound with C-A-I-N. And when you have “table,” “table,” “table”—are you near Abel? Maybe not. But it’s a little bit of a coincidence. You’ve got cane. “Slain by a cane” reminds you: That was the first killing ever. So that you’ve got the primal curse of mankind on it!

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,

And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,

Oh, do they think could bury you?

With your pockets well protected at last,

And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,

And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,

Who could they get to carry you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,

Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,

Should I put them by your gate,

Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Ricks: This is like a huge, Petrarchan poem. It’s like four, six sonnets by Petrarch. Every one of which lists all the wonderful apparatus which surrounds a seductive woman. The seduction may be her very goodness, or it may be other things about her. The song overlaps terrifically with Swinburne’s poem “Dolores,” where Dolores is our lady of sorrows, “the sad-eyed lady of the lowlands.” … The refrain is a very great beauty with great dignity. It’s about “should I lead them by her gate? Or sad eyed lady, should I wait?” “Should I wait” is like Shakespeare’s sonnets, where the speaker in the sonnets is always saying “please, I’m perfectly happy to wait, happy to wait”—with a terrific edge of resentment—and this a song which understands resentment. That is, it’s not simply grateful to a woman who puts you through all of this with her this and her that, “with your, with your, with your…” Terrific song. Terrifying song, really.

dylan at the piano

If you want to learn more about Dylan’s time in Cambridge, read our own Zach Goldhammer’s piece on the ARTery.

Illustration: Susan Coyne; Photos: Ted Russell/Polaris, Hulton Archive/Getty Images. The audio above is a re-run, broadcast June 8, 2017. Listen to the original program at the Internet Archive here.

Guest List
Christopher Ricks
professor of the humanities at Boston University and author of Dylan's Visions of Sin
Francine Prose
professor of literature at Bard College and author of Mister Monkey: A Novel
Charlie Pierce
sportswriter, political blogger, and author of Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue

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  • Mauricio Diaz

    Hi Chris. This is Mauricio the guy you met the other day, and Tyler, at the T. Just to let you know that I enjoyed your piece on Bob Dylan, the poet. You certainly choose your guests well. Take care. Mauricio.

  • Ricks was great. He liked Cream – my favorite group of all time…. saw their penultimate US appearance.
    Francine Prose – spot on re. Blood on the Tracks.
    Charlie Pierce – smart, funny.

  • Michael Garner

    Great piece. My mind was take over by Dylan in 1964 when I was seventeen. It’s was a pleasure hearing fro others who have enjoyed his work as much as I.

  • Ricks is a gifted speaker. Ricks spoke of the totality or the gestalt of Dylan without using those two words. He can synthesize thoughts of Foucault, Bell, Benjamin,
    Langer, or Stevens without a specific mention.

    Foucault wasn’t against totality, continuity, teleology, synergy, holism, and origins per se, but the centrality of the historical narrative’s use of these concepts to the exclusion of non-normative behaviors of the individual. He was against the rounding off of
    human existence by society. He wanted to experiment with a new history made up
    of outliers to society.

    The concept of the totality in art leads one to something Susanne Langer described. There is progression from Clive Bell through Walter Benjamin to Susanne Langer’s
    understanding of a totality. Langer’s idea was that a totality must be grasped
    at once – it can’t be built up from an atomizing rationalization. That concept
    is central to the perception of visual art and its symbolization of feelings – the
    ineffable gestalt of art.

    Ricks referenced the visual nature of Dylan’s assembled prose and also mentions film art. Dylan uses our visual thinking, vocabulary, rhythm and melody forcing us to use our whole brain. The stories he tells, however, are of the societal outliers. We are given a totality; yet, there is required the strangeness of our imagination to grasp it. As
    Wallace Stevens wrote: “A tune beyond us, yet ourselves.”

    Dylan is a genius, right? Dylan does what artists do and there is a conceit in the word genius.

    I would use as an example of what I mean, Roberta Lee Streeter. She wrote a revelatory song in the country genre, about the same time Dylan produced Like a Rolling Stone. She wrote it, produced it, arranged it, and performed it worldwide at a time when women didn’t do that very often. It was a timeless song about human
    But you’ve never heard of her because she didn’t do it again. In film art there are dozens of examples I could mention; here’s one you’ve never heard of – Chantal
    Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

    Dylan is a widely acknowledged genius because he was prolific and popular over a long period of time. It must be conflicting to be a part of, and at the same time outside of the system and to carry that on for a very long time; hence his reaction to the
    Noble Prize.

    And they said then, “But play, you must,
    A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
    A tune upon the blue guitar
    Of things exactly as they are.”

  • Potter

    I get a lot of shelter from the storm just listening to Bob Dylan, any period, but “Blood on the Tracks” was my album. I could not stop listening to it when it came out. And now hearing it again, your excerpts even, transport me. Such is the affect/effect on me. It’s an emotional thing and calming, his voice. The music is perfect, the words too.

    I loved Francine Prose especially. Ricks made me work my mind when my mind resisted. But that will be left for another listen or two to this most enjoyable program during this desolate time. Dylan seems to be saying this is life, and time moves us on. Thank you so much for this.

  • Mary Theroux

    I loved listening today!

  • loujudson

    Really good program; excellent analysis of the bard of America. Reminds me of when we were assigned to choose a poem to analyze in Freshman English in high school, and I chose Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues – I’ll never forget the snickers and titters of the class at my selection and what they judged as lame interpretations. Actually the only thing IO got way wrong was the drug analogies; I was an innnocent in 1965.

    The only thing I don’t like in this program is using later versions of the songs instead of the original best-known performances – for me that takes away form the geniunineness and urgency of the real songs, much the way my classmates’ titters destroyed my presentation of a poetic interpretation. I love how Ricks describes the phrases along with the music – that is nicely done! – but using the wrong version of the song takes away the depth and urgency for me.

    I quibble, however – one excellent program! Now to listen to Bob’s acceptance speech entire.