I try to be meek and mild. I try to be humourous too. And I’m always serious. Honestly. To some people, those don’t seem to go together well.
I’ve never received more complaints — verging on the indignant — than after I wrote about Wedding Song that
It may be a silly song, hastily written, badly rehearsed, and with some of the least successful poetic images Dylan has ever written (“I love you more than blood” – yuck!)
I’m sorry if I hurt someone’s feelings by trashing their favourite song, but I do think it’s a silly song; all reports agree that it was hastily written; and the recording bears ample evidence to the short rehearsal time, even though the performance miraculously hangs together and succeeds in the way that only Dylan can make it succeed and for which I love his music. For once I agree with Clinton Heylin:
Though it is hard not to interpret the lyrics on a literal level, Dylan’s performance once again transcends the at times slipshod sentimentality. Which may well stand as the motif for all of Planet Waves. Though it is an album suffused with brilliant performances from both musicians and vocalist, Dylan had yet to fully excise some bad writing habits picked up during the amnesia. (Dylan Behind Closed Doors, p. 99)
The “slipshod sentimentality” keeps me from seeing the honesty that Dylan so desperately tries to display (or: which the persona in the song so desperately tries to display, or: which Dylan so desperately tries to make the persona in the song display), and which makes it sound dishonest to me, despite all the overwhelming images. “You try so hard…,” as the poet says.
Many have kindly suggested to me that “blood” is not to be taken literally. Frankly, I didn’t believe that Dylan was sitting at his breakfast table with Sara’s hand in one hand and a glass of freshly poured blood in the other, thinking “Now, which one do I love more…?” I’m well aware of the associations between family and blood. That still doesn’t make it a successful poetic image, for me.
There’s more to the poetic than making cunning connections or crafting rhetorical figures. Those things are to a poetic text what a virus is to a computer: They can be very powerful, but just being there — on the harddisk or in a text — isn’t enough. As long as they don’t run — if they aren’t executed — they do no damage; they do nothing, apart from taking up space.
So, what does it take for an image to be executed?
The very sound of it is important, the physical qualities, that which is not connected with concepts, words, ideas. Already here, “I love you more than bleahd” fails, and not only because of the kitchen-table associations.
A certain broadness in the range of associations isn’t a bad thing either, instead of monomaniacal insistency on one topic (unless of course that insistency itself is what is on display). The blood image alone might have done it for me in a different context, but in the company of the other larger-than-life images in the song, trying to top each other in greatness of sentiment — More! More!! More!!! — it reminds me quite a bit of Dan Bern’s song Tiger Woods, which has the same escalation on overdrive:
I got big balls
Big ol’ balls
Big as grapefruits
Big as pumkins,
Yes sir, yes sir
And on my really good days
They swell to the size of small dogs —
Balls big as small dogs — now, there’s some poetic imagery for ya!
But most important for how I judge a poetic image is its ability to project a persona which we all know is literary but whose experiences are close enough to our own that we can make them our own as if they were genuine. This is the fundamental failure of Wedding Song for me: I can’t for the life of me think of it as a genuine, honest expression of anything. Too many things stand in the way and prevent me from making it my own. And if that is the case, I’d rather go out there and get those experiences myself — and tell myself that I don’t need Dylan to tell me what it’s all about.
Which I did. There’s a reason why that particular song was featured on the front page on that particular day…