Reverence For The Myth
Prevents Learning From The Man
My Craft or Sullen Art: Poetry and Songwriting by Joe Dolce (Meanjin: Sept 26, 2013) is a compelling argument for the premise that conferring upon one the status of songwriter-poet is an obstacle to understanding, appreciating, and learning from the work of that individual. The opening paragraphs of this essay follows:
Among many contemporary poets and writers there is a reverence approaching myopia towards certain iconic singer-songwriters from the early 1970s, most notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, which prevents clear-eyed critical analysis of their careers and current work. There is also confusion as to whether these singer-songwriters should be considered poets, lyricists, poet-lyricists, singer-poets or a dozen other hyphenated nouns.
Accomplished and extremely gifted writers and critics, such as Robert Adamson and Sir Christopher Ricks, who are currently writing at the high standard that both Dylan and Cohen wrote at in their best years, or have even transcended their skills with language, continue to heap lavish praise with nary a critical word to be heard. These same writers, who have no problem dismantling the work of their respected peers, seem to be paralysed when it comes to their musical heroes. They see no conflict in analysing the work of other writers around them but react to any adverse criticism about the ones they choose to follow in music with something approaching the same distain that a mother might have of another mother saying disparaging things about her children.
It is worth emphasizing that Mr Dolce does not address the amorphous mass of fans who revere Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan but focuses specifically on “contemporary poets and writers” who admire those musicians, going so far as to name examples.
Nonetheless, extrapolating from the descriptions of these professional writers who are “super fans” (see below) to those of us who are Cohen or Dylan followers of the sort unburdened by literary gifts, proves irresistible.
For example, the nature of this reverence and the problems it causes, outlined in the third paragraph, is surely as applicable to fans in general as it is to fans who are “poets and writers:”
A strange bond between these ‘super fans’ and their beloved musical artists falls somewhere between a family tie, the devotion of a sanyasin for a guru and awe and reverence given a tribal shaman. The unspoken taboo and emotional reactiveness given anyone questioning the sacred musical texts of the ‘masters’ becomes a serious impediment to learning anything from the strengths and weaknesses of these artists, incorporating the strengths into our own work—while avoiding the weaknesses.
Later in the article, the author elaborates on this theme:
The work of the beloved becomes a kind of spiritual canon, much like the Bible for certain fundamentalists as the unquestionable Word of God—blind faith is required to understand it, not reason. Once you attribute the sacred state to someone else, it puts them in a different moral value system to your own. Followers no longer conceive of themselves to be as worthy as the one they follow. One can only be devoted. And people outside the circle can become less than human if they doubt or question.
Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It …
This is an essay every fan of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, and those other singer-songwriters accused of being poets should read. While there are disputable points and the occasional cheap shot,1 Dolce’s piece provides insights that can lead to self-awareness, albeit via uncomfortable disillusionment, and the reformation of ones perspective. Ultimately, one can come away with an enhanced recognition of the strengths – as well as the previously denied limitations – of these singer-songwriters.
The entire article can be accessed at My Craft or Sullen Art: Poetry and Songwriting by Joe Dolce
- The only poetry by Leonard Cohen Dolce quotes, for example, comprise seven nonconsecutive lines about cigarettes from “The Flow” (Book Of Longing: 2006) – hardly one of Cohen’s most profound efforts. Given that these lines are specifically positioned as a comparison to another poet’s work, Dolce’s choice is sufficiently suspect to generate a prima facie case that, as everybody knows, “the fight was fixed.” [↩]