Sunday, September 17, 2006

Dylan's Frail Flowers

The hot news on the Internet concerns the question of plagiarism and Bob Dylan - the discovery by an Albuquerque disk jockey that some of the lyrics in Dylan's new album, Modern Times, appear to derive from the work of a 19th Century southern oet, Henry Timrod. I probably shouldn't label someone as obscure just because I haven't heard of him, but this log is a Molecentric world, so OK, an obscure poet.

The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, a pretty complete reference book (and one I contributed to, but on 20th Century poets, doesn't have an entry on him and they're pretty exhaustive (and right now, I'd guess, kicking themselves for not including Timrod).

He was better known in his day. Tennyson lauded him as "the poet laureate of the Confederacy."

Anyway, here's the story:

While experts have not directly accused Dylan of plagiarism over the songs on his latest album, Modern Times, which is number one in the US charts, they say there appears to be little doubt that he has liberally "borrowed" from the works of the Confederate poet Henry Timrod.

For instance, the lines in his song "When the Deal Goes Down", in which Dylan sings: "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours", bear a striking resemblance to lines contained in Timrod's "A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night", which reads: "A round of precious hours, Oh! Here where in that summer noon I basked, And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers." Elsewhere in the same song, Dylan sings "Where wisdom grows up in strife" - very similar to a line in Timrod's poem "Retirement", which reads: "There is a wisdom that grows up in strife."

Walter Cisco, author of a biography of the poet...said he was certain that Dylan had borrowed from the writer... "It's amazing. There is no question that is where it came from. It's too much to be a coincidence. I'm just delighted that Timrod is getting some recognition."

Plagiarism? I'd be hard pressed to say yes, though it raises some interesting questions.

I've stolen larger chunks than the ones Dylan took from Timnrod to put into poems, but they weren't from other poems.

Here's one:


They used to practice cannibalism, until
they went away from the river
when the colonists came. It’s said
they have some power over the crocodiles.

But since they pulled back, humans are scarce,
reptiles live in trees. Oh, you’ll still hear
the odd story – a child crunch’d, a maiden bathing
surprised by one, two, three, shuffling from the bank.

Mostly, though, things change. You lose the taste
for long pig, and make a virtue of it.
Crocodiles, neglected, no longer smile for you.
Their memory is ancient, but shallow.

The entire first stanza of that comes from a Johnny Weissmuller "Jungle Jim" movie, watched on TV one Saturday morning. I heard that line, grabbed the nearest envelope I could find, and wrote it down, knowing that it had some power over me, though I didn't know what. But that's "found poetry," finding the poetic in something that wasn't meant to be poetic. Dylan is finding the poetic in something that was meant to be poetic.

The great blues composers, like Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, borrowed all the time from earlier songs -- it was an accepted practice. I've heard Leadbelly criticized because "Goodnight Irene" was -- in the critic's view -- essentially a rewrite of a sentimental 19th century lyric. And I've seen the poem in question, not that I could find it right now. It's terrible, and "Goodnight Irene" is a masterpiece.

Christopher Ricks, author of “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” a book I liked,
saidto the NY Times,

I may be too inclined to defend, but I do think it’s characteristic of great artists and songsters to immediately draw on their predecessors.” He added that it was atypical for popular musicians to acknowledge their influences.

Mr. Ricks said that one important distinguishing factor between plagiarism and allusion, which is common among poets and songwriters, is that “plagiarism wants you not to know the original, whereas allusion wants you to know.”

“When Eliot says, ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’ — to have a line ending ‘to be’ when the most famous line uttered by Hamlet is ‘to be or not to be’ — then part of the fun and illumination in the Eliot poem is that you should know it,” he said. But he added: “I don’t think Dylan is alluding to Timrod. I don’t think people can say that you’re meant to know that it’s Timrod.”

I probably shouldn't quote from myself twice in the same blog entry, but this is maybe relevant in a different way. It's a -- not exactly a translation, because I was translating a memory of something I hadn't read in thirty years.


‑‑adapted from the memory of a poem by
Jacques Prevert, read 30 years earlier

There's a story about a painter
of reality in the South of France
or one of those islands
like Ibiz or Majorca
where the sun's ego runs wild
and color is a riot
of civil disobedience

In front of this painter is an apple
on a white plate
on a window sill
the color the sun decreed
the painter of reality
addresses the apple sternly
orders it to reveal
its external core

But the apple spins
in its molecules
prismatic to the sun's reality
hermetic to the painter
of reality

He breaks for lunch
bread and cheese
white wine
a boiled potato
leaving the apple
to reflect on its self‑absorption

At just that time
along comes Picasso
a spectral swirl
a many‑hued presence
always where he's needed

And Picasso eats the apple
and the apple says thanks
and Picasso walks down to the ocean
leaving a shower of seeds
strewn across the plate

Prevert had the painter, and the apple, and Picasso, and the apple thanking Picasso for eating it; I'm not sure how much else. I credited him in my epigraph, but my poem was later set to music and recorded by Fred Koller (here's the song), and he didn't include the epigraph. I don't know if the frail flowers are going to be thanking Dylan, but I don't think they'll be cursing him.

No comments: