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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 May 2021

As Bob Dylan turns 80, his ‘skipping reels of rhyme’ are celebrated by Malcolm Guite

I HAVE always felt that there is a distinct pleasure to be had in rhyme itself. It is, as A. H. Hallam once said, “a parley between memory and hope”: the first unrhymed sound sets up the expectation of its coming echo, and, when that rhyme comes, it only blooms because it evokes and remembers its rhyming partner.

Poets can play with this endlessly: the immediate satisfaction of a rhyming couplet, the deferred gratification when a rhyme is suspended, as it so often is in Keats, over three or even four lines, and then the sheer exuberance of the overflowing pleroma of a sequence of rhymes on a single sound.

Bob Dylan is a particular master of this effect, which he achieves with aplomb, and apparently without effort, conjuring up what he memorably called, in “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “skipping reels of rhyme”: “And if you hear vague traces, of skipping reels of rhyme, to your tambourine in time, I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a ragged clown behind. . .”

I have been hearing those traces, those skipping reels, a great deal of late as Radio 4, among many other media outlets, has been celebrating the great man’s 80th birthday. I especially love the effects he gets on a song like “Simple Twist of Fate”, with its short-lined, closely rhyming stanzas:

They sat together in the park

As the evening sky grew dark.
She looked at him and he felt a spark
Tingle to his bones
’Twas then he felt alone
And wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate.

The inevitability of the rhyming sounds, twisting and turning through the song, does indeed chime with a sense of fate, finality, inevitability. But it is not fate, of course. It is the deliberate choice of an artist, at the height of his powers, exercising his freedom, but channeling and sharpening that freedom through the apparent constraint of rhyme. It is not for nothing that Dylan, in one of his most elaborately rhyming and chiming songs, sings continually of “the chimes of freedom”.

When I turned, in my teenage years, from my first intoxicated reading of the Romantic poets to the darker and more dour pages of modern poetry, post-Eliot, largely written in “free verse” — fragmented, apparently formless, eschewing both rhythm and rhyme, and, in some cases, even intelligibility — I used to wonder where all that wonderful craft had gone, all that music that rang from the pages of Keats and Byron. And then I realised that it had fled from the page to the microphone, from the book to the album. There it was, ringing as free and clear as ever, in the songs of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison! Poetry, which began as an oral tradition and flourished long before the invention of writing, let alone printing, had returned to its roots.

I have tried, in my own small way, to return rhyme to the page, to find my freedom in form, to summon a little of that lost Keatsian music. As I do so, I am inspired as much by the songs of Dylan and Cohen as by the great written poetic tradition.

There was some controversy when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (Comment, 21 October 2016). It was, in any case, as Leonard Cohen observed, “like pinning a medal on Mount Everest”; but, for my part, I thought it a well deserved honour for the man who put the lyre back into lyric poetry.

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