Accordingly, I took [to the poets] some of the most elaborate passages from their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius or inspiration.
– Socrates, from Plato’s Apology
I was reminded of this a little by watching Bob Dylan talking to the press:
Now in my limited experience it seems hard to comment on a poem or song because the poem or song is your comment, and if it has any value at all it seems to have its own completeness; how can you comment on it without repeating it? But in the case of His Bobness (as with Leonard Cohen), there is also the fact that his lyrics come from a way of looking at the world which simply makes it harder to engage with such questions. You have to shift your mind into a different configuration to see the world as the question dictates; you also have to decide whether it’s worth doing so (Dylan clearly thought not).
Also: what the questioners often want is to talk to the mindset that produced the songs, or something along those lines. But if that mindset required a flash of inspiration, how can you interrogate it? Or if songs required months of growth and sculpting, how do you expect an answer in the spirit of the songs in a matter of minutes? (Come to think of it, songwriters do sometimes seem a bit like Ents when asked questions.)
In defence of the questioners, the seemingly-dumb questions may arise from forcing their own minds’ response to poetry into the straightjacket of press-conference questions.
(My favourite part is 0:50 to 1:20. He can’t help but embarress the poor lady but the expression on his face is kind.)
…they are like soothsayers or diviners, who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case…
and the cards are no good that you’re holding
unless they’re from another world
…and I further observed that on the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.
…and truly, there is nothing new under the sun. But I don’t think that applies to Dylan at all. He had convictions, and sang about them, as a protest singer and later as a Christian –
Years ago they said I was a prophet. I used to say, “No I’m not a prophet.” They say “Yes you are, you’re a prophet.” I said, “No it’s not me”. They used to say “You sure are a prophet”. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, “Bob Dylan’s no prophet.”
– but if he let his fame go to his head too much – or let it show in public – I’m not aware of it.
(This is not the weekly sketch-post.)