On Bob Dylan and Bob Marley: Two of Our Greatest Poets

Bob Dylan Essay
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Bob Dylan. Image by Richard Mcall from Pixabay

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I was never a man for poetry. Nor am I still, to be honest, although I have tried.

In the past, I have made miserable attempts at reading poetry. Keeping aside the poems I had to read in school, I tried reading the works of William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Rabindranath Tagore, Lord Byron, Homer, Rudyard Kipling, and a few more. Sadly, I failed at all my attempts, unable to complete a single poem by any one of these great poets. And even if I did manage to finish a small one, I barely understood its meaning at all.

Soon enough I realized that, obviously, the problem was with me, not with the poems or the poets. They were great and remarkable poets, each one of them, admired across the world and across generations, and I was nothing but an ignorant simpleton forcing my way through their poems even though I had no particular fondness for the form.

That is not to say, of course, that I despise poetry or poets. Not at all. For a man who loves literature, that would be blasphemy on my part. Unacceptable. I would never even dare to make such statements. All I am trying to say is that poetry is just not my thing, just as, I am sure, there are many lovers of poetry who are incapable of reading a work of prose. And so, I declare, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that poetry was never my cup of tea. Not yet, at least. But I really hope to change this in the near future. Trust me, I do.

After these failed attempts of mine, I gave up on poetry and poets in general, thinking that I was just not smart or sophisticated enough to understand them. I could never understand what Eliot wished to say, or what Yeats wanted to convey, or what Tagore wanted me to feel. And so, I left it up to others and stuck to reading prose.

And then, one fine day in October of 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. And in doing so, he became the first songwriter in history to win the Nobel Prize, thereby changing my perception of poetry forever.

I loved Bob Dylan and still do. And it suddenly dawned on me that I did love poetry and poets after all, for Bob Dylan was a poet, I realized. And so was another great songwriter of the 20th century, whom I also loved and admired, and still do, the great Bob Marley.

I had been listening to Bob Dylan and Bob Marley for quite some time by then, enjoying their songs, and the meaning and depth their songs possessed. I loved it all. But I always saw them only as musicians. Musicians who sang songs in a band in front of thousands of people cheering them on. Musicians who recorded their music in studios, with the help of various other musicians and instruments. Never once did I see them as poets. Never once was I able to listen to the words of Marley and Dylan and compare them to the great poets in history, even though I was mesmerized and in awe of the meaning behind their songs.

They were musicians to me, just as they were to the rest of the world. In the previous century, no one would have ever been able to predict that a musician would one day receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not because they were incapable or anything, but only because no one before bothered to consider a songwriter a poet. A poet who sang out his words instead of merely speaking them. A poet who backed his words with rhythm and melody and whatnot.

No one thought of it that way in the past, including the Nobel committee I guess. But fortunately, times change, perceptions change, and ideas change. And with such change, songwriters (the good ones, I mean) can now be considered, either partly or wholly, as poets making significant contributions to world literature.

And I am sure no one would question me when I say that Bob Dylan and Bob Marley have done that. The two of them have contributed to world literature as much as any other poet or writer in history has. And it is my belief (although it is a controversial one, I admit) that if Eliot or Neruda, or Auden deserve to win the Nobel Prize, then so do Dylan and Marley. Why not?

In fact, as silly as this may sound (and I know it does sound silly), Dylan and Marley have been more prolific in their output than Eliot and many other poets. And make no mistake, I am aware that literature must be judged on its quality and not quantity, but the point I try to make is that the sheer quantity of the songs written by both of them has no doubt greatly contributed to world literature, even more than some highly influential poets.

Now, you might be wondering, how can we possibly consider all songwriters as poets? That would be foolish, especially keeping in mind some of the songs which are truly utter rubbish, written merely for the sake of writing and putting out something, and nothing else. The lyrics of those songs serve no purpose other than to simply fill the void between the rhythm of the song.

And I honestly agree with this argument. I agree we cannot consider every songwriter to be a poet. That really would be foolish and regressive. It would no doubt degrade and bring down the level of poetry and poets which was so laboriously, carefully, and passionately built up in the course of our history. And this history, this legacy, must be protected and nurtured at all costs. I agree.

But for me, personally, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley stand out as clear exceptions. They stand out as two bright, shining diamonds would in a heap of rubbish. Or like two giant monuments surrounded by a thousand slums. For, I believe, that is the stature they have achieved through the words of their songs.

Maybe let us begin with Bob Dylan, the folk singer-songwriter, the voice of his generation, the voice of the rebellious counterculture, the writer of anti-war and civil rights anthems, and one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Let us talk about him.

First of all, allow me to begin by giving a disclaimer, as usual. Dylan himself hated and despised the very titles accorded to him as mentioned above. He never liked being called the voice of his generation or the voice against oppression or the voice of the counterculture and all that fancy stuff. He never cared about all that, still does not, and I am quite sure never will.

And I only wished to give this disclaimer in order to honor Dylan’s views and perception of these titles given to him. I had no other intentions and shall get on with this essay now.

In spite of Dylan himself not liking these titles, I completely understand why one would refer to him in such a manner. I understand why people felt the need to confer those titles upon him. The reason was obvious, it was in his songs. The meaning his songs conveyed speaks for themselves, even though, I believe, there are high chances that we have completely misunderstood the meaning of his songs even when they have seemed straightforward enough.

His songs really did speak to a whole generation of youth back then. It really did give them a voice when nobody was willing to listen to them. It gave them power and courage. This all happened, even if Dylan himself had no intention for it to happen. That is the truth, and not even Bob Dylan can change that truth. And the irony is that his influence continues, maybe even against his own wishes. Not only did he give his generation a voice, but he also gave it to subsequent generations as well, including mine. And he continues to lend his voice to new generations through his eternal lyrics, although unintentionally.

Such is the power of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

When I first heard Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changing and Blowin’ in the Wind, I was moved like never before by a song. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I stand by it. The lyrics of these two songs were so poignant, so important, so urgent, and so current, that it felt as if they were written by a contemporary songwriter in the present time, not by one in the 1960s.

It was unbelievable to see how these songs were still so relevant to my generation as if during all those tumultuous decades that passed by in between, nothing had changed at all. Not one bit. It felt as if the governments were the same, parents were the same, and society was the same. It felt as if, contrary to the songs themselves, the times had never changed at all, and with it, neither had we as human beings. We had made no real progress at all, I thought (of course I do not mean technologically or scientifically, but more in terms of our thinking and attitude toward change).

And then I went deeper into the world of Bob Dylan. I listened to the words he had so beautifully laid down in A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Mr. Tambourine Man and Masters of War and Murder Most Foul and Hurricane and Ballad of a Thin Man and Like A Rolling Stone, and so many other great songs that I cannot possibly go ahead and write them all down over here.

And I realized that even though Dylan himself hated those titles, the people who had given them to him were right and justified in their own way. His words were poetry, pure, beautiful, and unadulterated. His words held up a clean, perfect mirror to the dirty faces of the men in power and to a society steeped in its past, unwilling to move forward, unwilling to accept change. They showed us a portrait of the regressive humanity we represented.

Dylan, through his songs (or poems, as I like to call them), said the things we thought, and the things we never thought. He openly expressed the doubts we all had, while at the same time making us realize that there were doubts we should have had but never did. He articulated the thoughts we could not articulate for ourselves. He articulated the hypocrisy of our governments and of society in general. He created awareness at a time when people were blissfully unaware.

Dylan did all of that. Maybe not intentionally, but nevertheless, he did. And for that, we must all be grateful to him.

Now, enough about Bob Dylan. Allow me to bore you by talking about my other favorite poet, the legendary Bob Marley.

Where do I start with Marley? Where do I end? What do I say that already hasn’t been said? Definitely nothing new. But I shall lay down my thoughts on the significance of his lyrics.

For a man who came from the poor side of Jamaica, for a man who had barely received any formal education, Bob Marley knew and understood a lot about humanity at a much deeper level than most of us, and the words of his songs reveal the same. Through his poetic lyrics, one can hardly fail to notice the wisdom he possessed. And just like Dylan, Marley was not merely a musician. His songs meant something. They had a purpose of their own. A mission.

I was introduced to Bob Marley by my older brother, who used to play his songs on a loop. Marley’s songs were what the cool youngsters listened to back then. Not so much because of the meaning of his lyrics, but more so because of Marley’s status as a cultural youth icon, one who stood for peace, love, and also rebellion. The only other figure who was able to rival Marley with a similar status amongst the youth was Che Guevara, who had become a worldwide symbol of rebellion.

Like most people who came to discover Marley’s music, I first fell in love with the groove of his most famous songs. I listened to One Love and No Woman, No Cry and Get Up Stand Up and Could You Be Loved and I Shot The Sheriff and Buffalo Soldier, and some other songs, without paying much attention to the meaning of their lyrics.

It was only years later when I actually began listening to songs whose words meant something, did I realize the depth and emotion behind these songs of Marley. It was then that I understood what No Woman, No Cry and Get Up Stand Up meant, and what Buffalo Soldier actually stood for.

And as I explored Marley’s music with more awareness and interest, I found it to be a goldmine of meaningful, significant words that dared to address the social and political issues of the time. Songs like War (my favorite song by Marley), Redemption Song, Soul Rebel, So Much Trouble In The World, and Africa Unite, blew me away.

In War, he boldly addresses the plight of black Africans suffering under white oppression. While in Redemption Song, he pleads with us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, warning us that none but we ourselves can free our minds. His words in all these songs were poetic and poignant, prophetic even, almost as if he were not a musician or a poet but a philosopher. His wisdom and awareness shine through for all to admire and marvel at.

Marley’s lyrics meant a lot to a lot of people, becoming the words of resistance and peace, and love. It inspired and encouraged men and women across the world to get up and stand up for their rights, demand them, and win them. It also inspired them to spread the message of love and peace across humanity. A noble message it was.

In this way, I began regarding the songs of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley as no less than beautiful poetry, and the two of them as great poets. Maybe I am wrong. Who decides these things anyway? Maybe no one even cares about these things except for me. Maybe I am wrong to consider their songs as literature. Maybe I am wrong to think of them as poets, let alone great ones. Maybe I am wrong to regard their lyrics as poetry.

All I would like to say is, if I am wrong, then I would prefer to remain so. I choose to remain wrong.

Bob Dylan and Bob Marley made me realize that poetry does not have to be incomprehensible, complex, or difficult to understand or fathom. Poetry can be simple, they taught me. Poetry can be sung instead of merely being read out. Poetry can be backed by instruments providing it with rhythm and groove, making it catchy and fun.

For me, personally, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley will always remain two of the greatest poets ever. And I shall proudly stand by this statement forever.