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Students Take a Lesson from Bob Dylan

Year in Review: 2008

kevin barents.jpg

College of Arts and Sciences lecturer Kevin Barents has built a course around the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Through December 24, BU Today is looking back at the most popular stories of the year. We’ll be back with new stories for the new year on Monday, January 5. Happy holidays!

This week, Bob Dylan released his 14th compilation album, The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs, the latest in a stunningly fruitful career. His musical output, 32 studio albums and 13 live releases, has recently been topped off with a memoir, a satellite radio show, a London art exhibition, poems in the New Yorker, and a special Pulitzer Prize for his impact on American culture. Not to mention his “Never-Ending Tour,” which sees the traveling troubadour take the stage, on average, every three days. No doubt — the kid from Hibbing, Minn., demands attention.

“I’ve thought about teaching a class on Dylan’s lyrics for years,” says Kevin Barents, a lecturer in writing at the College of Arts and Sciences. “But the time seems especially ripe now. It seems you can’t open a magazine or newspaper without seeing some reference to Dylan.”

Welcome to WR 100, also known as Bob Dylan’s Lyrics. Barents’ idea is to teach underclassmen the mechanics and artistry of good writing by marrying the curriculum to one of the craft’s most engaging and enduring practitioners. His students start out the semester discussing the definition of poetry and song and whether Dylan’s lyrics, isolated from the music, are worthy of comparison to some of the best poetry in the English language.

“As usual, Dylan himself is of no help in answering this,” Barents says. “At one moment, he says it’s all about the words: ‘I’m a poet. I live like a poet, I’ll die like a poet.’ Then later he’ll say, ‘I’m a song-and-dance man. It’s about the music, not the words.’”

Lee Feiner (COM’12) flips open the course’s main textbook, Bob Dylan Lyrics, 1962–2001, stops on the 1962 song “Rambling, Gambling Willie,” and recites a few lines.

“It’s so well thought out,” he says. “He shows poetic instinct that you’re not going to find in a lot of poetry, that you just can’t teach. To deny him the title of poet is just not fair.”

Feiner says that when he saw in the course description that they would dissect Dylan’s lyrics through the seminal 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, he jumped at the chance. “Because of the way poetry was presented to me in high school, I have never been in love with it,” he says. “I figured there is no better way to enjoy analyzing poetry and writing than through an artist I’ve grown up listening to.”

The course also uses as a text Dylan’s Visions of Sin, written by literary critic Christopher Ricks, BU’s William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities. Barents describes the book as “a 500-page explication of Dylan’s songs that treats them every bit as seriously as an explication of Milton or Blake.”

In fact, it was the elevation of Dylan’s academic credibility by Ricks that prompted Barents to propose the course in the first place. Ricks agrees that Dylan has plenty to teach aspiring writers. “The words of the lyrics are very, very good,” he says, “and it would be good for students to think about the ways in which an artist comes up with words that are at once surprising and just.”

Barents wants to hear his students discuss not only metaphor and imagery, but poetic elements such as synecdoche and synesthesia. “Instead of saying that ‘the words have good rhythm,’ students can point out that ‘the frequent anapestic substitutions in otherwise iambic lines contribute to a galloping rhythm that reinforces the playful nature of the lyrics,’” he says.

“I know your future literature profs at BU will appreciate your ability to talk that cogently,” Barents tells the class. “But more importantly, there’s something about being able to express yourself that when you can find the right words, you yourself can come to a clearer understanding.”

Many ofBarents’ students discovered Dylan through their parents. For some students, Barents says, it’s about more than his words. It’s about an ever-shifting outlook on society that informs his artistry.

“It isn’t just his position as a social critic that makes him great, but rather his continually adjusting viewpoint and his evolution of thought,” says Nicholas Celletti-Nissenbaum (CAS’12). “In his fourth album, Dylan moves beyond the finger-pointing songs and criticizes himself in the refrain of the song ‘My Back Pages,’ where he says, ‘Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’”

Is that why he endures more than 45 years after his first album?

“He is a genius,” says Ricks. “Geniuses have a way of remaining relevant generation after generation.”

This story originally ran October 10, 2008.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


3 Comments on Students Take a Lesson from Bob Dylan

  • Anonymous on 12.26.2008 at 7:39 pm

    Bob Dylan

    Why does Bob have to be a subject of either or?

  • Anonymous on 02.07.2009 at 7:01 pm

    i guess he is a nerd

  • daniel on 03.12.2010 at 5:25 am

    a poet rhymes words, dYLAN RHYMES WORDS. END OF STORY

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