Basic Poetics – (Bob Dylan and the Ballads)

Allen continues his discussion of the English ballad, “Sir Patrick Spens”

AG: From the conversation, you know, the sailors’ complaining in stanza seven – “I fear, I fear, my Master dear/That we will come to harm” – and, within four lines, the hats are swimming on the surface of the water. It’s amazingly pungent how fast that goes (like a haiku again), swift as a haiku. So “Sir Patrick Spens” ballad is, I think, the most impressionante, the most impressive, in the sense of leaving an impression, a mental-picture impression, of any of the ballads that I know. It’s the one that’s stuck with me most, and the one that’s made the most sense as high art, in terms of the swiftness of the jumps.

So, actually, I think (Bob) Dylan tried to imitate that (particularly “Sir Patrick Spens”) in the work he did around (19)67, (19)68, (19)69, where he tried to cut out of his ballads everything that was.. that had holes in it, was his idea – to get rid of anything that had holes in it, that didn’t..that didn’t advance the action swiftly. So I think that’s.. what’s the one you get about the..“All Along The Watchtower”. And the one about the lightning hits the courthouse and the guard runs out?..what was that?

Student: “..Judas Priest”

AG: “(The Ballad of Frankie Lee and) Judas Priest“, right, I guess it is.”All Along The Watchtower” and “..Judas Priest”.  Yeah

Student: Did Dylan actually look at these old ballads and know them?

AG: Yes..At that time, we were sort of trading information.”Sir Patrick Spens” was.. I think I mentioned it to him, but it was one of those..  around that time, I brought him a whole bunch of books to look at, for poetry, and we had a long telephone conversation one night,
I remember, (it went on for a long time), about, just about this point, of not wanting to have any air, or any hole in his lyric, or poem (we’re talking about the poet, we were talking about the poetry part, not the music part, not the showbiz part, but just the construction of a mind-trap, or the construction of a mind-word mechanism) – that, line by line, it should jump ahead and not look back. In other words, in the poetry, don’t look back [sic], also, but just move the mind forward, or move the story forward, move the consciousness forward, or move the intelligence forward, or move the space of mind forward, or, move on, from line-to-line, and then, move on as far as you could. And the further you could move, the more astonishing and magical the ballad will be. Just as it’s astonishingly magical to move so swiftly from the complaint, “my dear Master/That we will come to harm” to “Their hats they swam aboon”. And also, I mean… But also, move from fact to fact, move from detail to detail. Like, returning again to the notion of “No ideas but in things”, or “No ideas but in facts” – the hats, swimming “aboon”, the hats on the surface swimming, give you the whole story, including the movement of the surface of the ocean. In other words, you don’t even have to.. you don’t have to mention the ocean! The hats describe the ocean.
By what particular is this ocean surface significant? – By what particular fact, what particular visual object is this ocean surface significant? – Question-mark – [Answer] – By the fact that hats are swimming on it, which then gives you the surface of the ocean, gives you the “mighty deep” and gives you that whole idea  (having the original.. information that they were going out on a ship and it was like a weird moon, and fear in advance. Without telling any more of the story (other than) that the hats were floating on the water, you’ve got the whole story (and without telling any more story, about how the people reacted, you’ve got these ladies, sitting forever with their fans in their hand and standing forever with their gold “kems” in their hair (gold combs in their hair). So, just one little detail – fans in their hand(s) – another detail – combs in their hair  – sitting – standing – the hats swimming – you’ve got this fantastic picture of the entire ocean universe and people’s relation to it. Yeah?

Student: I wonder if anyone’s ever tried to make a short film of one of these ballads, because they’re so visual, you can just see that hat swaying in the waves.

AG: Oddly enough, I think James Broughton has made films (a San Francisco, Bay Area, poet) has made films of the ballads

Student: That’s an obvious thing to do, though.

AG: Yeah. Can you see the relationship between these ballads and (Bob) Dylan’s middle-period work? Does that make sense what I was saying?

Student: Isn’t, like, “Black Diamond Bay“.. just a modern version of his jump-cuts..?

AG: Well, yeah, but that’s carrying it out to almost, you know, exaggerated, baroque, form
(because there are so many changes and junps in that, that, you know, it becomes almost nonsensical, doesn’t even make sense finally (why, I don’t know, maybe it does).

[The audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-seven-and-three-quarter minutes in, and concluding at approximately fifty-three-and-a-half minutes in] 

One comment

  1. The song referred to, with the lightning, is of course Drifter's escape, but what Ginsberg points out is also mentioned by Dylan elsewhere and makes good sense, though Dylan would come to describe this method of cutting out as walking into a dead end street finally. It worked for him on JWH, but it led to a writers block after New Morning. The essence of his writing lies in the many ways his words go, the entanglement of the contrasting images, not the simplicity… I feel he's in such a dead end street once more with his Sinatra inclination, but I trust, that if time is given to him, he will transform that experience once again into something new.
    hans altena

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