Allen Ginsberg Criticizes Bob Dylan

AG: You had your hand up – Yeah?

Student: I was reading (Ezra) Pound yesterday

AG: What were you reading?

Student: Huh?

AG: What were you reading?

Student: Uh, what were the ones he did right before the Cantos?

AG: Personae

Student: Yeah

AG: Selected poems

Student: Yeah, and anyway, all of a sudden four or five lines from (Bob) Dylan came into my head – from “Desolation Row”

AG: Yeah

Student: “T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound fighting in the captain’s tower while gypsy singers laugh at them and fishermen wave flowers”

AG: Yes

Student: So I just got real frustrated with Pound. I couldn’t understand it. I just wanted to go wave flowers because it was easier.

AG: You just what?

Student: I got real frustrated with Pound because I wasn’t understanding it.

AG: You know, that’s one of Dylan’s fucked-up lines, I’m afraid.

Student: You think so?

AG: Alas – Because I love him as a poet. But, see, Eliot and Pound were friends, they weren’t “fighting in the captain’s tower” – “T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound are fighting in the captain’s tower..” – What was it? How does it continue?

Student: “While calypso singers laugh at them”

AG: Well, that might be. Because, calypso singers, literally, in the early part of the 19th century, were practicing an art of improvisation, using actual diction, street diction, and using spontaneous mind practices, which really were the ultimate goal of Pound’s study of the minstrels and minnesingers. But Pound didn’t actually pick up on the fact that there were living minstrels and minnesingers and troubadors in America among the blacks. He didn’t quite understand that as an art form. (Pablo) Picasso was smarter when he went back to African statuary directly for his spirit, for his modern spirit.

But then Dylan goes on and fucks it all up with a real dull image (like [the example he gives in his “A Retrospect”] “the dim vales (dim lands) of peace“)

Student: Yeah

AG: What’s the next line? “While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers”?

Student: Hold flowers? Wave flowers.

[tape ends – continues on reverse side]

AG: At..

Student: No, just…

AG: What was the line? You just quoted it

Student: “Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow”

AG: Yeah, so Dylan has to bring in his old tired “lovely mermaids” there. I mean, Dylan finally falls into exactly the same trap that Pound was warning against. Where did he get those “lovely mermaids” at “the windows of the sea”?, “fishermen holding flowers”? – that’s all out of his head, out of his head from reading Ezra Pound or something. No, I mean it’s all out of his head from reading (Alfred Lord) Tennyson, probably, in high school – “Mermaids of the sea”! – My ass! – I mean, he doesn’t know anything about mermaids of the sea! Dylan had not read, really, Pound. He’d read Eliot but he hadn’t really read Pound and, at that time, understood Pound. And so later he told me that he’s ashamed of that line (he’s not ashamed, but he’s a little.. he can’t sing it with the conviction that he wrote it, because, actually, Pound was warning against that kind of dopey sentimentality).

Student: Wasn’t he referring.. I always thought that by this line he was referring to this fascist state..

AG: Yeah, The tower.

Student: Of Pound.. The fascist.. Fascists. And this as the fascist Ship of State coming down – and Anti-Semitism as well.

AG: I don’t think so. I don’t think (that) he had that in mind

Student: That’s what I got out of it.

AG: He thought they were too arty – “While calypso singers laugh at them” – Maybe. Of course, unconsciously, he may have had “lovely mermaids” there. Dylan finally falls into exactly the trap that Pound was warning against. Where did he get those “lovely mermaids”? It’s ignorance of Pound’s beauty. At that time he had not yet read (Arthur) Rimbaud even, much less Pound.

Student: Maybe he was sort-of doing it then. It seems throughout all that song, he’s comparing, like, ideology with literature in one heavy way

AG: In a kind of heavy way

Student: Yeah

AG: In a too heavy way

Student: Yeah

AG: I’m saying I think there’s a.. Well, I mean, that’s the main thrust – his ideology and literature. I mean the main thrust..

Student: But that’s (just) one vein..

AG: Yeah

Student: .. that seems to run through it.

AG: I don’t think it’s the major thing. The major thing is about.. ego-fascism, sort of – “Dr.Filth” and his nurse (he’s talking about an amphetamine scene) – amphetamine fascism, actually.

Student: I’d say the major thing is “Howl”

AG: I don’t know how much of an influence..

Student: I really…

AG: …precisely, that was

Student: …think..

AG: Probably some

A little after that time I started bringing Dylan books to read and I brought him an (Emily) Dickinson

Student: Educated him

AG: …Pound, (Walt) Whitman (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, (Arthur) Rimbaud, Emily Bronte, (Antonin) Artaud (William Carlos) Williams

Student: He hadn’t read these people?

AG: Yeah, a little, in an anthology – (Christopher) Smart – he read him in anthology like everybody does. But he hadn’t looked at the body of the work. His reaction to Rimbaud was really great. He loved Rimbaud, and said, “how can anyone write after Rimbaud”?


  1. It could be that I'm very wrong. But to compare Dylan, a folk-singer/songwriter, to Pound, a modernist, controversial fascist, and editor-genius, seems disingenuous and inappropriate. Granted, this comparison seems brought about by the student, but Ginsberg could have sidestepped rather than argued against the merits of this or that line from Dylan's "Desolation Row."

    Ginsberg also follows a strange line of reasoning by criticizing the student's cited line to "Desolation" as one of Dylan's worst lines. The student was comparing, assuming the student is honest, quite a few lines by Pound to simplicity/accessibility the student found in those few lines by Dylan.

    I understand the desire to import the lyrics of a singer-songwriter into the realm of poetry–especially one as prolific, ambiguous, and multiple as Dylan–but the gesture seems prematurely… apples and oranges. Perhaps even apples and bacon.

    I appreciate both Ginsberg and Dylan, but find Ginsberg's lighting off down this path of comparison troubling. Removing those few Dylan lyrics from their context–melody, rhythm, timbre, etc–and placing them as "pure" lyric has reduced and diminished Dylan's entire composition.

    This and other transcripts–useful as they may be for us in understanding Allen Ginsberg as a human being–will never reveal the entire story, an impossible task in a temporal world. The room for interpretation and misjudgment (as I myself might be guilty of here) is far too great.

    A poet I very much respect once told me that we must always assess a poet by their best work. I think that's great advice, whether or not we include Dylan at this point (which we likely should, but not based upon Ginsberg's criticism and defense of Pound here).

    By the way, Eliot never fought–in serious opposition–with Pound over the editing of The Wasteland. You should see the facsimile of the edited manuscript. The Wasteland would not have left the ground without Pound's efforts. Eliot rightly acknowledged this by dedicating the poem to Pound, Il miglior fabbro.

  2. I started the doorknob thing. And simply get a feeling Dylan is almost yelling (perhaps in weariness)at meaninglessness. He calls lifelessness a sin. For Dylan, I think, a being should be full of life and it ought to be meaningful, not full of all the traps his characters seem to fall into.

  3. What's absolutely hillarious is that Dylan was probably not even specifically talking about Pound/Eliot, just name-dropped them as he did with so many other interesting figures at the time. Dylan is my life, period, but I think we give him too much credit on some things – of which I'm sure he sits back and has a good laugh about sometimes.

  4. I would say that over the years, he definitely favors the "calypso singers, fisherman, and mermaids."

    BTW, A dissenting voice is not "merely" dissenting.

    "Windows of the sea" are the look we get into that other side of life, the one the Titanic is about to go down in. Maybe…?

  5. I have juggled the idea of meaninglessness as well. It makes air if sense, because the allusions are so scattered.

    The doorknob line, and the last verse in general always seem summarize to me. In this last verse of the song, Dylan personalizes the song. All of a sudden it is "to" someone. Still, I have always thought that the last verse establishes the mood or an inkling of meaning.

    Dylan's tone is weary in this song. It's as if the stream of images are his cognitive overload, and in the end he simply has the blues. He received a difficult letter when the doorknob broke, go figure. It's like an image used to emphasize how things aren't going well, which is exacerbated by the next lines. He can't read right now. He can't concentrate. Please don't try to write to him. It doesn't help. The only people who can understand him are on desolation row.

    My feeling is that the song means something. It's like a canvas with many images on it, but they collectively point to meaning. It's just not a ballad, or a narrative. It's an abstract. Think of all of the characters. They are all embroiled in something, except for the speaker. He just needs a rest. He's worn out, etc this also aligns with Dylan's life at the time. He was running ragged, in fast forward.

  6. Never go to the effort, time-consuming effort, of "straightening" anything out. Because then it becomes "public domain", appears in some expert's book etc. Screw Dylan, screw Ginsberg, screw Dylan fans.

    Om om om, shitty shitty shitty

  7. Well, he does sing, "… fighting in the captain's tower."

    I agree though, in the context of the song "captain's tower" seems to be more meaningful. The calypso singers are just a dissenting voice. It's as if Dylan is saying not to take the elitists too seriously. However, as I state below, this is not to say Dylan favors the calypso singers, fishermen, or mermaids.

    In fact, I'd like to know what everyone thinks the "windows of the sea" are, and how do mermaids get in there? It's like an aspect of fantasy, of total unreality. It's a place where "nobody has to think too much about desolation row." Is that good? It reminds me of "A Brave New World" and taking soma. That's bad.

    Again, taking all of this into consideration, what's Dylan's point? Why write the song to begin with? What do we take from it? It's very elusive.

  8. Brilliantly insightful summation. You have hit numerous nails sweetly on the head, and opened up a new vista of meaning for me, with respect to Desolation Row. Thank you.

  9. Ginsberg is a minor artist, Dylan a great one. It is the latter that will be remembered in 500 years time, although he himself would be sceptical any one will be around by then, and indeed it is in dealing with such eschatological issues, among others,that Dylan establishes his greatness.

  10. I've always felt that people take Dylan too literally. This is not to say they take him too seriously, because he asks for that. It's more that people want to make him more deliberate than he intends to be. Ginsberg definitely falls into this trap.

    Dylan himself has suggested in interviews that he doesn't necessarily consider all of the depths people take his words to. Even a triumph like "Desolation Row" cannot necessarily be understood line by line. It's not a commentary on many, many separate things. It uses many, many separate things to establish a very big meaning.

    Taken in isolation, the lines about Eliot and Pound are probably faulty in some kind of historical way. I get that. But it's not a song about those two or historical facts about their lives. It's a song about the state of things and the universality of his experience at the time. Ginsberg merely expresses his opinion that Dylan botched that line and followed it up with a trite, flowery, mermaid reference. The problem with Ginsberg's argument is that is presupposes Dylan was singing favorably about the mermaids, windows of the sea, fisherman, and flowers. As if Dylan dislikes or at least is criticizing something about what Pound and Eliot are doing, or about their literary status.

    On the contrary, I take Dylan's line(s) to be objective. He is more so classifying groups of people. There is a group of literary elitists (Pound and Eliot), and there is a group of over-sentimental, possibly "hippie" types. They are both wrong because they are too extreme. Break down the list of images in the song and the meaning changes for each line. The lines barely stand on their own, only in a way that supports the totality of the song.

    That's how I've always understood a lot of Dylan's song. It's his genius. The best of what he writes is vague enough to avoid a single meaning, but elaborate enough to be profound. Ginsberg makes a mistake when he tries to group Dylan in with "poets." Dylan is also a singer. He creates melodies. On the page, "… lovely mermaids flow" is trite as can be. But, in the song, the melody gives it so much more. I can't describe it. It's the wonder of Dylan. It can't be boxed in.

  11. A relevant quote from Eliot's "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock""

    "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
    By seagirls wreathed in seaweed red and brown
    Till human voices wake us and we drown."

  12. Pound and Eliot didn't fight over editing Waste Land. In fact Pound edited it and changed it radically and his friend was thankful for that.

  13. That's the thing about Dylan: it could be over hastily recycled poetry that he has skim-read too fast and just regurgitated as more than "possibly half-baked" imitation, OR it could be beyond Ginsberg's own intellect, thereby consolidating Dylan's "genius": for cut and paste or genius as the case may be.

    And we see this game played out on the web everyday. Or rather you do, because I don't bother to that extent because, like 24-hour rolling news on TV, nothing is actually happening that fast to justify it.

    This is not the first instance of Ginsberg griping at America's "greatest living poet" – which only underlines the syndrome.

    Michael Slippery Gray (Ms)

  14. Last year a BBC documentary on Eliot began with that verse from Desolation Row, then Christopher Ricks appeared to explain that what Pound and Eliot were fighting about was control of modernism. Which I think makes sense sense when you look at how Pund and Eliot fought over editing of The Waste Land.

    What is date of Ginsberg seminar?

  15. Perhaps this is why Dylan doesn't sing that verse these days (as far as i know).

    It's be intersting to know the date of this exchange . . .

  16. I would add that I read the Pound and Eliot line as a piece of triumphalism – Dylan saying those old elitists, the captain's of literature in their ivory tower, have become irrelevant now that the young ones, Dylan in particular, have developed expressive forms of their own.

  17. I'm surprised no one has followed up the Prufrock connection cited above. The 'Titanic' verse carries four parallels to those final lines from Prufrock: mermaids being alluring, "chambers (Eliot) windows (Dylan)of the sea", wreathes (implied in Dylan by a) the shape of windows of the sea – round – and the fishermen's flowers likely being wreathes at a burial at sea, as would be appropriate in a Titanic verse), and finally the fact that the mermaids distract one from hard truth, death (Eliot) Desolation Row (Dylan). This connection seems plausible because, as Ginsberg makes it clear, Dylan read Eliot, so he likely read Prufrock.

    I assume Pound and Eliot's fight was another reversal or incongruity, of which there are many in Desolation Row (Einstein's drainpipe habit, Casanova needing reassurance, Romeo's failure with women, sailors in beauty parlours, etc.)

  18. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

    I do not think that they will sing to me.

    I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
    The whole quote from the end of "Prufrock":

    Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
    When the wind blows the water white and black.
    We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
    By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
    Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

    Cf: the manuscript publication of The Waste Land with Pound's merciless editing and the Eliot/Pound Correspondence recently published. The Modernist poets tended to argue more than A.G. was used to. "Calypso singers" might well refer to W. C. Williams who was the antithesis of Eliot and who wrote much more lyrically.

    But the mermaids is a wonderful nod to Eliot, to isolation, failure of man, etc. Great stuff. "Desolation Row" should have more written about it. So many references. Dr. Filth's leather cup might well be a jock strap where he hides his perverted sexuality from his sexless patients.

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