Review of Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, by David Boucher (New York: Continuum, 2004)
By: John A. McCurdy
22 March 2009
Critics today occasionally still ask whether the songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen should rightly be regarded as poetry or not. Poetry shouldn’t depend on melody and instrumentation, they charge.
It’s an old-fashioned argument, but one that can be made.
Then there are those who take it for granted that Dylan and Cohen are poets in the traditional page-bound sense. Pressed to support the claim they often point to the fact that Dylan’s work continues to elicit a steady stream of interpretative tomes and tributes. Or they refer to the fact that Cohen’s songs are commonly anthologized in undergraduate literature textbooks or studied in university and high school classrooms.
But can we respond to the question as to whether or Dylan and Cohen’s songs are poetic with any confidence? In Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, author David Boucher’s answer is yes. Grounding his arguments in the artistic theories of R.C. Collingwood, Michael Oakeshott and Federico Garcia Lorce, Boucher posits the existence of three types of modern poetry: poetry of magic, which recreates the phenomenal (external) world; poetry of imagination, which stirs and educates the inner (subjective) world of emotion; and inspirational poetry, which operates solely according to the logic of imagery.
Boucher is generally successful in showing how Dylan and Cohen’s songs can be read as specimens of one or another of these types of poetry. Dylan’s work is described as having evolved from being a poetry of magic (here his early politically committed songs are exemplary) to poetry of inspiration (as in the imagistic masterwork “Desolation Row,” from 1965’s seminal Highway 61 Revisited). Meanwhile, Cohen served a much longer poetic apprenticeship (his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies appeared in 1956), so that he attains a level of imaginative poetry at roughly the same time as Dylan, on his 1966 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Boucher’s book seems troubled though by what feel like internally incompatible elements. Though he performs many insightful close readings of key Dylan and Cohen songs, he also populates the text with a large volume of biographical, performance-based, and historical information. He does this in an effort to establish biographical and historical context. Yet it’s not always clear how this broader material directly supports his reading of both singers’ imaginative and inspirational songs.
In this respect, though Boucher touches on the question, it remains unclear precisely how Dylan and Cohen’s songs achieve imaginative or inspirational status. At what point does a song, as opposed to a poem, register meaning and achieve its distinguishing effects? At what point and to what extent is any work of art constructed by the reader? Viewer? Listener? Audience? The poetry question, as it relates to popular music and popular culture, remains on the table.
Whether or not Boucher achieves a breakthrough in terms of better understanding the relationship between poetry and popular culture, he is clearly passionate and deeply informed about his topic. Possessing a superior grasp of the vast literature written on Dylan and Cohen, he effectively presents what must be its leading insights. Though some of the biographical and historical content seems extraneous to the book’s theme and purpose, this material remains fascinating in its own right and is presented in an invariably sober manner. Consequently, one finds politically and psychologically grounded histories of the postwar American folk music movement and counterculture in Boucher’s book, alongside a set of unsentimental biographies.
Hank Williams emerges as Dylan and Cohen’s formative musical and cultural influence. Later Dylan turns to Johnny Cash, to Harry Smith's now famous Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), and ultimately to Woody Guthrie. Elements of Dylan’s early politically committed career receive due attention after years of critical fixation on his ‘going electric phase.’ How many younger Dylan fans know, for instance, that Dylan “sang to a crowd of over 200,000 people at the March on Washington rally” in 1963 “on the same stage that the Reverend Martin King Jr., deliver his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” Fewer perhaps than one might suspect. Boucher’s book is particularly valuable for the thorough manner in which the historical importance of the pre-“Like A Rolling Stone” Dylan is affirmed. He also makes connections across Dylan’s full catalogue. That 1979’s Slow Train Coming “was so intensely religious should not have come as a surprise,” he writes, for “Dylan’s early albums, beginning with the first, Bob Dylan, were obsessed with death and God” (p. 216).
Then there is Boucher’s reconstruction of Cohen’s biography, which turns out to be as conflicted and tormented as Dylan’s – if not more so. Some will know that Cohen experienced intense manic depression until as recently as the late 1990s. Fewer will know however that his interest in Zen Buddhism dates to the early 1970s; that his greatest early popular influence, Hank Williams aside, was Ray Charles; or that one of the most fruitful ways to interpret his work is as an running commentary on the undeniable battle between the gendered sexes. On this latter point Boucher expands, taking his cue from “There Is a War,” an early 1970s Cohen song:
“This war between men and women to which he refers is one that is a battle of the wills, a ruthless and vicious struggle to the psychic death, and in which women have the upper hand. Everyone knows, Cohen says, that women are the mind and force that hold everything in place. His album I’m Your Man  represents for him a truce in this war, perhaps even a peace” (p. 197).
Happily such choice insights are to be gleaned in abundance from David Boucher’s Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll.
*Original review of Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, by David Boucher published in Say3 Magazine, November 2005, pp. 34-35.
Professor David Boucher's Website: http://www.caerdydd.ac.uk/euros/contactsandpeople/profiles/boucherde.html
David Boucher's Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Dylan-Cohen-Poets-Rock-Roll/dp/0826459811