Dennis-Dylan is a Beat Poet

1 Dylan is a Beat Poet
By “Dennis”
2 Bob Dylan emerged from the 1960s counterculture as a wholly unique musician for his
ability to represent the discontent and temper of the times. His independence led him to
eventually separate himself from the folk and protest movements, which could not fully
encapsulate Dylan’s themes. The only movement or classification that can apply to Dylan
throughout his varied creative phases is the Beat movement. Often, the discussion revolves
around whether Dylan is a poet or not. If taken for granted as literarily significant, however,
Dylan falls in as a Beat poet. Dylan derives from the same influences as the Beats, shares similar
concepts about art and life, and often uses Beat themes in his own writing.
The Beat movement arose from common feelings during the 1950s of estrangement from
the new American conception of fulfillment as comfort bred by materialism and conformity.
Pioneered by such writers as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, the Beat
movement stressed self-determination and individuality above all else. This encompassed an
alienation from the majority of society, a focus on art and openness to drug use and sexuality. To
Kerouac, Beat meant beat literally, as in tired, but also meant beatitude: “everything is going to
the beat / ... / it’s the beat of the heart / it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime
lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat”1. Beat
writers sought to champion their fellow youth as the Beat Generation, innocents who were
broken by society but gained a certain profundity and visionary quality by that defeat. Kerouac
described beat as endurance bred by a faith in the beautiful downtrodden few underneath the vast
many. Ginsberg described his peers in Howl as “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”2. To all of these writers,
Jack Kerouac, Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation, Verve, CD, 1960. Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2001), page 1. 3 spontaneity, drug use and experience acted as ways to find personal spirituality in everyday life
and prolong the pervasive 9-5 lifestyle. Bob Dylan in his early years already strongly resembled the Beats, especially Jack
Kerouac. He left his hometown Hibbing because he “always knew that there was something out
there that I needed to get to that wasn’t where I was.”3 He shared with Kerouac, the writer of On
the Road, a sense that the road freed oneself, and would adopt it as a major theme in his own
writing. They had no idea what they were looking for, but knew it was not where they were; to
them the only chance o finding anything was to go. Dylan left for New York City to find Woody
Guthrie but in Chronicles also admits, “I suppose what I was looking for was what I read about
in On the Road – looking for the great city, looking for the speed, the sound of it, looking for
what Allen Ginsberg had called the “hydrogen jukebox world”4. Dylan’s influences from Beat
poets stretch much farther back than reading On the Road, however: Dylan says he was
“eighteen when I discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder... then I started reading the French guys,
Rimbaud and Francois Villon.5 Dylan and Kerouac both left dying industrial towns and
fashioned their own educations under anti-intellectual guises. Dave Van Ronk found a heavily
thumbed-through copy of Rimbaud translations in Dylan’s library after Dylan played dumb
about French symbolism. Kerouac and Carr rattled against Lionel Trilling’s academic
interpretations of poetry but signed up for a shipping vessel under the guises Rimbaud and
Verlaine. Dylan traced Beat poets back to their origins and sought to develop along similar lines.
When Dylan first got off the subway at Greenwich Village at age 19 the scene there
consisted of the folk and Beat movements. The folk movement quickly claimed Dylan; after all,
Bob Dylan, interview by Ed Bradley, Sixty Minutes, CBS, December 5, 2004. Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), page 235. 5
Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), page 138. 4
4 Dylan played folk music and the Beats preferred jazz. As Dylan began putting out original
material, however, he quickly revealed poetic interests that lay more with the Beats. Van Ronk,
mentor to Dylan and fellow performer at the Gaslight, said, “Bobby is very much a product of
the Beat Generation. Dylan really does belong in a rack with Kerouac.”6 This is because Dylan
almost intentionally provided for himself the same influences and environment that led to the
birth of Beat ideology. Dylan first found a Beat scene in Dinkytown, the bohemian hangout
surrounding the University of Minnesota. He would listen to poetry readings around town and
hear “Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti – Gasoline, Coney Island of the Mind...
oh, man it was wild – I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness... On the
Road, Dean Moriarty, this made perfect sense to me... it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis
Presley.”7 Dylan demonstrates here a uniqueness among musicians for having equal parts
influences from poetry and music. This tendency, however, is not unique among the Beat poets,
who found much of their inspiration from the rhythm and urgency of bebop jazz and emulated its
musical style in their writings. The Beat movement’s interconnectedness between music and
poetry allowed Kerouac to draw on jazz for the “breathless, dynamic bob phrases”8 that Dylan
loved just as it allows Dylan to be classified as a Beat poet.
Dylan never met Kerouac but formed a lifelong mentor-mentee relationship with
Ginsberg. Ginsberg shows up present in Dylan’s life concretely in such instances as on the back
cover of Bringing it all Back Home and in the background of the video for “Subterranean
Homesick Blues.” He even plays the character “Father” in a film Dylan made for the Rolling
Thunder Revue. More importantly, though, Ginsberg began to draw Dylan away from the
Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), page 99. Sean Wilentz, "Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg's America," The New Yorker, August 16, 2010, page 2, online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/08/sean-wilentz-bob-dylan-in-america.html. 8
Sean Wilentz, "Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg's America," 2.
5 topical, immediate world demands of the folk movement into more Beat-like poetic ideals.
Ginsberg might have been drawn to Dylan because of his likeness to Kerouac, who at the time
was well into the alcoholic phase that would end his life in 1969. Similarly to the young
Kerouac, Dylan was being hailed as a poet and spokesman of a generation. David Amram tells
Dylan at one point that Dylan reminded him of “what it was like for Jack when he suddenly
became a worldwide celebrity overnight [with On the Road], and how devastating it was for him
– he just wanted people to read his books.”9 Both Dylan and Kerouac saw their creation distorted
by the public.
Another unifying parallel between Dylan and the Beats is their definition and theory of
art. Just like Dylan thought that “paintings should be on the walls of restaurants, in dime stores,
in gas stations, in men’s rooms”10, the Beats believed that meaningful creation came from
experience and the everyday. Dylan shared with the Beats a fascination for authentic people,
worn by life and the world. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs found their inspirations through
real life figures like Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon and Herbert Huncke, whereas Dylan had to
find his through Americana tales, through Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin. In Chronicles
Dylan champions Pretty Boy Floyd as a romantic hero over Al Capone because “there’s
something unbound and not frozen in the muck about him. He’ll never rule over any city... yet
he’s the stuff of real flesh and blood, represents humanity in general”11. Here Dylan expresses a
fascination with the same beatitude that the main Beat poets found in their mythic heroes, who
would never go on to do anything tremendous but be all the more beautifully resilient for it. 9
Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, 305. Bob Dylan, interview by Nora Ephron, August 1965, Interviews with Bob
Dylan, Chronicles Volume One, 39. 6 Speaking on poetry, Dylan nearly cites the ideals of the Beat Generation. Dylan says, “I
think a poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet. [Allen Ginsberg]’s a poet. One of
those truck drivers at the motel is a poet. He talks like a poet. I mean what else does a poet have
to do?”12 Poetry belongs to everyone who recognizes their everyday defeats and triumphs. “I
know just two holy people,” Dylan continues. “Allen Ginsberg is one... What I mean by ‘holy’ is
crossing all the boundaries of time and usefulness”13. Dylan refused to label his songs as
‘topical’ because political messages lose their importance once the subject event fades from
memory. Dylan had always looked for the Beat ideal of ‘holy’. He was drawn to folk music
because of its poetic longevity and timelessness, and wrote songs such as “Masters of War”
because they spoke about all wars but no war in particular. As his audience misconstrued his
songs more and more as political messages, Dylan grew increasingly frustrated. In an effort to
distance himself from the protest movement, Dylan tried to clarify his views in his acceptance
speech for the Tom Paine Award in 1963 by saying, “there’s no black and white, left and right to
me anymore; there’s only up and down and down is very close to the ground. And I’m trying to
go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics.”14 Dylan voices that artistic ideal,
championed by the Beats and taken on by Dylan, again in his 1966 Playboy interview: “All these
songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that
turn into angels – they’re not going to die... Songs like “Which Side are You On?” and “I Love
you Porgy” – they’re not folk songs, they’re political songs. They’re already dead.... Traditional
music is too unreal to die.”15 Dylan began playing folk music because it, at its un-political poetic
core, is a counterpart to Beat poetry. Dylan succeeded in securing his longevity by alienating
Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, 353. Ibid. 14
Bob Dylan, "Bill of Rights Dinner" (Keynote Speech, Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Americana Hotel, December 13, 1963), 15
Bob Dylan, interview by Nat Hentoff, Playboy, February 1966, 13
7 himself from the folk movement once it sought to define him without fulfilling his artistic
intents. Michael McClure, a Beat poet, writes in an article to Rolling Stone in 1974, “We should
wonder what is wrong if Dylan’s songs do not mean something to us today.”16 With those words
McClure affirms Dylan as a poet by the very Beat ideals Dylan emulated. To Ginsberg, “Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind.
It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.”17 Dylan took a similar view
with his songs. He found subject matter in the social turmoil of his time through figures like
Hattie Carroll and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter because the answers seemed obvious to him. It’s
just that no one had projected them in public. In the liner notes for Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,
Dylan says, “I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many wars... You people
over 21 should know better... All I’m doing is saying what’s on my mind the best way I know
how”. Dylan expounded on the questioning accusations of Ginsberg’s “America” with “Masters
of War”. He first clearly points out who he’s talking to: “You that build the big bombs /You that
hide behind walls”. He then voices his distress and disappointment through questions: “Is your
money that good / Will it buy you forgiveness?” Compare the structure and content of these lines
with “America”, which begins, accusingly, “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing”
and asks the same sort of open-ended questions: “America when will we end the human war? / ...
/ America when will you be angelic?” Both poets starkly address national wrongdoings as
refreshing voices of reason, acting as vocal safeguards of the American interest. In the liner notes
for Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan says, “There aren’t any finger pointing songs in here...
From now on, I want to write from inside me... for it to come out the way I walk or talk.”18
Michael McClure, "Bob Dylan: the Poet's Poet," Rolling Stone, March 14, 1974, page 3. Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography, page 520. 18
Wilentz, "Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg's America," 15.
8 Another Side of Bob Dylan is known for marking the point where Dylan begins to depart
musically from acoustic folk, but also debuts his attempts to become a full-blown Beat poet. Dylan first began to display his Beat leanings in the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his first
major collection of original works. In “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” Dylan uses startling
symbolism to expand on Ginsberg’s “lament for the Lamb in America” in Howl. The ‘Lamb’
would go on to become a major theme in Dylan’s songwriting for years. “Hard Rain” carries a
Beat focus on the innocent down-and-out through Dylan’s clowns, “blue-eyed son” and “darling
young one”. The song carries the theme of innocence surrounded and endangered by the forces
of the world: “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it/ .... / Heard the song of a poet
who died in the gutter / Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley”. “Hard Rain” acts as
Dylan’s ode and elegy to beatitude, in which he takes on as subject matter how Ginsberg saw
“the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”. The imminent ‘hard rain’ Dylan
alludes to is the very same “Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! / ... / Moloch whose fate
is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! / ... / Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!” in
“Howl”. Both Dylan and Ginsberg concern themselves with fear of a society in which it is
impossible to maintain innocence or a pure natural poetic state. Dylan celebrates the bums and
clowns again in his indictment of the subject of “Like a Rolling Stone”: “you never turned
around to see the frowns of the jokers and the clowns”. He uses “Like a Rolling Stone” as a brief
reprieve from a world in which true innocence is most often scorned. In fact, the Lamb is present
throughout Dylan’s career. It changes form from the working man to the black man to clowns to
the Wild West Outlaw and on and on. The Lamb exists in those who are beat: the Beat
Generation. These characters offer to Dylan the same authenticity that drove the Beat movement.
“Hard Rain” also represents the conflict between Dylan’s artistic intentions, which lie with the
9 Beats, and the folk protest movement of the times, which labeled the song as a warning against
nuclear fallout. “It’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just
gonna happen,”19 Dylan responded. Ginsberg, however, understood and said “I heard ‘A Hard
Rains’ a-Gonna Fall” ... and wept because it seemed to me that the torch had been passed to
another generation from earlier Beat illumination”.20 Dylan converses with the Beats more directly in “On the Road Again”, “Desolation Row”
and “Visions of Johanna”. Each of these songs has a Kerouac counterpart: On the Road,
Desolation Angels, and Visions of Gerard. Dylan depicts a dysfunctional family in “On the Road
Again”. Dylan sings to his lover, “Your mama, she’s a-hidin’ / Inside the icebox / Your daddy
walks in wearin’ / A Napoleon Bonaparte mask / Then you ask why I don’t live here / Honey, do
you have to ask?” Dylan here echoes Kerouac’s motivations to stay on the road to escape
families and pasts that challenge individuality. Just as Kerouac voices his frustration at his
family’s inability to accept Buddhism in the Dharma Bums, Dylan states in his 60 Minutes
interview, “Some people get born with the wrong name, to the wrong parents. It happens.”21 The
road, to both, is an ever-present opportunity to reinvent and find oneself. In “Visions of
Johanna”, Dylan sings, “But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues / You can tell by the way
she smiles”. Dylan was fascinated with the same hitchhiking, homeless bums as Kerouac, who,
as Ginsberg puts it in “Howl”, “wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard
wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts / Who lit cigarettes in boxcars
boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night”. The
highway blues acted as a major theme for the Beats because it represented a longing to rely only
Jonathan Cott, Dylan on Dylan: the Essential Interviews (n.p.: Wenner, 2007), page 7-9. Allen Ginsberg, No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese, Paramout, 2005. 21
Bob Dylan, interview by Ed Bradley, Sixty Minutes, CBS, December 5, 2004. 20
10 on the self for definition and a willingness to move once the self was compromised. Ferlinghetti
writes in “Autobiography”, “I like it here / and I won’t go back / Where I came from. / I too have
ridden boxcars boxcars boxcars.” That image of boxcars, central to the Beats, was important
enough to Dylan that he fashioned it as part of his identity when he first came into New York,
lying to Columbia Records that he came in on freight trains, in boxcars. “Desolation Row”, Ginsberg’s favorite Dylan song, borrows some lines from Desolation
Angels nearly verbatim, such as “a perfect image of a priest” and “her sin is her lifelessness”.
“Desolation Row” seems to describe a contemporary apocalypse; Wilentz in his biography
writes, “Desolation Row is reminiscent of Kerouac’s Mexico, a mixture of cheap food and fun
(and ladies for hire) but with ‘a certain drear, even sad darkness’”22. Dylan himself even located
Desolation Row as “someplace in Mexico”. “Desolation Row” perhaps goes back to the idea of
“the Lamb in America”, in which the Lamb is cordoned off into Desolation Row, the only place
remaining for the Phantom of the Opera, Casanova, Einstein, Robin Hood, Cinderella, Romeo
and the speaker of the song. Shelton describes “Desolation Row” as “a near-sequel to “Hard
Rain”... your neighborhood after that rain.”23 “Desolation Row” marks Dylan’s unity and selfidentification with the isolated, broken characters of life, just as Ginsberg dedicates “Howl” to
Carl Solomon, with whom he was briefly confined at Rockland State mental hospital and writes
to in part III: “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland / where you’re madder than I am / I’m
with you in Rockland / where you must feel very strange”. Rockland and Desolation Row
occupy the same location and draw the same crowd, to which Dylan and Ginsberg both belong. 22
Wilentz, "Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg's America," page 18. 23
Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, 282. 11 “Visions of Johanna” marks a poetic high point for Dylan. Critics point to the stark
imagery and atmosphere of the song as proof of Dylan’s poeticism. In “Visions of Johanna”, the
speaker laments an absent Johanna as he stays up with Louise, a real and present woman. The
song can act as a representation of the ideal state as materialized, or not materialized, in Johanna,
ever out of reach from Louise and the concrete world: “Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near / ...
/ But she just makes it all too concise and too clear / That Johanna’s not here”. Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, in “Constantly Risking Absurdity”, details the poet as “the super realist / who must
perforce perceive / taut truth / .... / in his supposed advance / toward that still higher perch /
where Beauty stands and waits / ... / to start her death-defying leap”. Dylan’s “Visions of
Johanna” almost perfectly fits into Ferlinghetti’s image of the poet, who tempts absurdity on a
precarious tightrope in the hope of reaching truth or the ideal. The absurd, to the Beats and
Dylan, does exist in the here and now, “In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff
with the key chain / And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train”, and
lie as alternatives to reaching Johanna, the ideal. Dylan here puts into song his concept of
“holiness” as “transcending boundaries of time and usefulness”. Johanna’s presence will remain
through all of life and outlive Louise, and can only be ascended to through the everyday. Dylan
“could not resist playing [Visions of Johanna] to Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and
their friends at his Berkeley concert, as if finally prepared to cop to being a poet, knowing it and
hoping he don’t blow it.”24, as Heylin astutely comments in Behind the Shades; it seems through
all Dylan’s earlier albums that he aspired to a certain poetic ideal that he accomplished in
“Visions of Johanna”, which finally fully incorporates Beat themes into one of Dylan’s own
creations. 24
Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited, 238. 12 Artists belong to movements when they react to the same events and issues, create for the
same reasons and struggle with the same themes. In the same way, Dylan belongs to the Beat
movement. His work picks up seamlessly from writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg and adds
tremendously to the movement in their own right. 13 Bibliography
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———. Chronicles Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
———. Interview by Nora Ephron. August 1965. Interviews with Bob Dylan.‌bcs/‌interw/‌65-aug.htm.
———. Interview by Nat Hentoff. Playboy, February 1966.‌bcs/‌interw/‌66-jan.htm.
Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Kerouac, Jack. Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation. Verve. CD. 1960.
McClure, Michael. “Bob Dylan: the Poet’s Poet.” Rolling Stone, March 14, 1974.
Shelton, Robert. No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. New York: Da Capo
Press, 1997.
Wilentz, Sean. “Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg’s America.” The New
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