As a recent piece in The Independent notes, “students of literate songwriting” are unsurprised to find references to T.S. Eliot scattered throughout the pop canon: Genesis, Manic Street Preachers, Arcade Fire… and of course, Bob Dylan. Dylan arguably makes reference to Eliot’s masterwork The Waste Land with the line “in the wasteland of your mind” from “When The Night Comes Falling from the Sky.”
And in the penultimate verse of “Desolation Row,” he gives us an image of “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower.” As with every other line in the song, this could mean just about anything. But given Dylan’s admiration for The Waste Land, it could easily refer to the editorial tug-of-war between the two poets, as it was Pound who shaped Eliot’s poem into the work we have today. And then there’s the tower image so prominent in Eliot’s great poem, an occult motif Dylan returned to.
Just above, hear Dylan riff on the first four lines of The Waste Land for his XM Radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, which aired from May 2006 to April 2009. On the show, Dylan played records, responded to (fake) listener emails, read poetry, told jokes, and did musical bits, all in keeping with themes like “Money” and “Weather.” (You can catch two episodes a day on dylanradio.com).
He reads Eliot in a faux-beat cadence—sounding like Tom Waits—with a juke joint piano banging away behind him. Dylan opens his reading with some brief commentary, telling us that Eliot’s poem “commemorated the death of Abraham Lincoln.” This throwaway line may just give us a fascinating glimpse into Dylan’s literary sensibilities. Knowing that Eliot’s lilacs refer to Lincoln seems almost certainly to indicate that Dylan knows they first refer to Walt Whitman, whose “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” directly commemorates Lincoln.
Of course, he isn’t going to tell us that, if he knows it, just like he won’t give anything away in “Desolation Row,” a song so filled with references to famous figures and works of art that it’s hard to tell how much is “original” Dylan and how much a patchwork of paraphrase. The distinction hardly matters, Dylan seems to suggest in his elision of Whitman. Eliot’s poem is, line by line, so much a collage of allusion and citation that there seems to be no Eliot at all, just a maniacal editor (or two). The first line of the poem—“April is the cruelest month”—traces in part to French Symbolist Jules Laforgue, one of Eliot’s favorites, who begins his “October’s Little Miseries” with “Every October I start to get upset.” And Eliot’s original title, “He Do the Police in Different Voices” comes verbatim from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. As anyone who’s read Eliot in an academic setting knows, the list goes on, and on.
One of the effects of Eliot’s mastery of other people’s work (hear him read his poem above), which he could disassemble and make monstrously his own, is that his critics and fans will never tire of pulling apart his densely compressed verses and poking around inside them. Likewise Dylan. The latter never passed himself off as a poet explicitly (although he’s often read that way), but as a songwriter he’s spawned a cottage culture industry as productive as Eliot’s. Even his erstwhile radio show, in which he offered his own commentary and criticism, has its commentary and criticism from fans. I may never be convinced that songs—pop, folk, hip-hop, or otherwise—work the same way as poems, but if anyone figured out how to leap nimbly over whatever gap lies between them, Dylan certainly did. Maybe one of the connections he made is this: what seems to set both Dylan and Eliot apart from their peers is their compete disregard for notions of authenticity in favor of the play of “different voices”—impersonation, quotation, and homage to the artists they admire.