Reading Dylan as Poetry – It’s Not Dark Yet 1997

 

By Dearbhla Egan

Reading Dylan as Poetry – It’s Not Dark Yet 1997

How does one go about reviewing one of Dylan’s songs if you come from a standpoint of having a long term love for the singer and the songs but only a cursory knowledge of the life of the man himself?

For as well as all those really devoted fans who crave not just the music but a knowledge of the life story of the writer, equally, there are devoted fans who are happy simply to listen to the music without needing to know the meaning behind every lyric.

There is a strong argument to suggest that Dylan was not concerned who or why anyone listened to his music although it was certainly important to him that somebody was listening.  As a writer, he has moved between poet, storyteller, evangelist and prophet (which is often where things get complex), and celebrity (a title which he would claim to hate but has courted in times of need). Depending on which of these hats he is wearing he brings us a version of his particular truth as he is experiencing it at that time through his music.

I would like to discuss where I notice Dylan writing as ‘poet’. I am very fond of poetry.  Some years ago during my teacher training I was taught how to make sense, if you will, of poetry by learning how to read it and how to speak it correctly.

It helps sometimes to know a little bit about the background of the poet but quite often, it is possible to analyse a poem simply based on the words and the structure.  A good poem is rarely difficult to understand.  Being Irish, I have a fondness for the Irish Poets in particular.  I suppose the language used is more familiar to me.  Our most celebrated poet in Ireland, Seamus Heaney, Poet Laureate, wrote the following short poem about his mother.

From Clearances 3  By Seamus Heaney

                When all the others were away at Mass

                I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

                They broke the silence, let fall one by one

                Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

                Cold comforts set between us, things to share

                Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

                And again let fall. little pleasant splashes

                From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

 

                So while the parish priest at her bedside

                Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

                And some were responding and some crying

                I remembered her head bent towards my head,

                Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

                Never closer the whole rest of our lives.                

I chose this poem as an example because I wanted to illustrate that sometimes a moment of perfection can be achieved in just a few lines that are skilfully observed and written. I am deeply moved by this short poem, having loved and lost a wonderful mother but even if you have not had that experience, this poem is still a gem that so effortlessly offers us the opportunity to enter into a moment of exquisite imagery without having to stretch the corners of the mind.  It does what it is meant to do flawlessly.

It has often surprised me to find, when I have had reason to research something of the life of a poet whose work I am studying, that many of these people who write the most tender and poignant poetry, have reputations as being cranky, irritable and insular people to deal with face-to-face.  These poets have written poems expressing love or loss or joy with such tenderness and insight, yet they come across as being anti-social and difficult to deal with in person. We tend to be greedy where love is concerned and want the pretty picture to be complete in all aspects. We have always asked this of Dylan too.

Bob Dylan was always a thinker, not a talker.  This has often been perceived as some kind of character flaw, affectation or arrogance on his part and has driven his fans to distraction over the years.  As I said already, love is greedy, and his fans who have loved him in their way, have had an expectation that a man who can so eloquently express himself in song should equally be able to do so in speech.

Fans of a musician so often feel that they are owed something in exchange for their loyalty but why should this be the case? I believe it is both unfair and limiting to judge Dylan in such a way and I think he has understandably felt frustrated and angry by the demands of his fans.  Some might say it is important to find a way to satisfy all the needs of your fans because without them you are nothing and there is an element of truth in this.

However, Dylan’s response to this concept might be that the re-pay is the album after album after album and if that is not enough, if they have to know what he eats for breakfast or who he has fallen out of love with or in love with then they can get lost. Not a great marketing strategy but marketing was never his strong point.  Nevertheless, he did take an interest in how his albums were received and in the responses he got which were not always what he had expected or hoped for from his ‘adoring’ fans.  Dylan fans tend to be discerning.  It is a nasty little habit that he could do without.

We have seldom left this man alone despite it being clear that he does not respond well to public interest in his private life.  In a way this is why I have chosen to look at one of his songs as a poem.  In so doing so we can, in part, remove him from the picture as singer and musician and just look at the words as pure poetry without a relentless need to know about the poet. It is my way of celebrating the mind of a great poet and wordsmith and really feeling empathy with him as we read through the words of the song I have chosen.

The song is one of his later offerings called ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’  (From the Album ‘Time out of Mind…1997) and while the amazing music and the timbre of Dylan’s voice in this song certainly add to the overall effect, it could equally stand-alone without music as a very worthy poem. I think one of the reasons for this is  the striking aspect to the lyrics because of the stark honesty of Dylan, stripped away of arrogance, of certainty about his faith and his fate, a sadness about where he now finds himself after all has been said, done and sang.

I would invite you now to read carefully and slowly through the lyrics of the song.  There are no puzzles to be solved here so all that is required is an ability to empathise with the poet.  If you are familiar with the music, try to put it out of your head.  It really helps, if you are in a quiet space where you will be undisturbed, to read the words aloud.

The poet is not playing games with us here by using complex metaphors or similes. This allows the reading to flow freely from start to conclusion without interruption.  You should notice this particularly when you speak the poem aloud.  It is important to observe that in speaking aloud there is a slightly different rhythm and meter to the poem compared to the rhythm we observe in the sung version.  This difference can impact on the sense we draw from the poem.

In all probability, you will conclude that the meaning of this poem comes across as the same meaning you would draw from the song.  What I think that may be different however is the depth of your emotional response to what the man is saying and your level of understanding about where he is emotionally placed because of what he is telling us.  Let us read now and come back to this later.

It’s Not Dark Yet

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

                                 Bob Dylan

Well, I don’t know about you, but my experience of reading this piece as poetry is very moving and also quite humbling in a way.  It is a sad poem where the poet is looking closely at the impending end to his life yet there is a flicker of hope still evident in the repeating of the line ‘It’s not dark yet’.  He is looking back at things but is more focused on where he currently stands which is a bleak and powerful picture of desolation and loss.  He who had it all, who’s belief in a higher power was once unshakeable, waits now for the darkness to finally envelop him while thinking:

Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal

And:

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain

And:

I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes

Here the man is telling us that he feels disconnected from the people – friends, family, cohorts, fans, collaborators, characters and lovers that occupied his life.  He speaks of the emptiness and pain that is associated with this loss and how he has given up on looking for sincerity any more. He feels as if he has been duped and used by these people and he has had enough.

But surely the final denouement in the fourth and last verse has to be the most revealing and sincere but also the most despairing when we hear the words:

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I have to be honest at this point and say that it is impossible for me to read those last two lines simply as poetry, disconnected from Dylan as poet.  It is painful to hear or read because he appears to be so lost and this is an unusual position for him.

When we consider a man who devoted so much of his life to religion and the search for meaning in all of it, now finding himself at the end without ‘the murmur of a prayer’ is actually distressing to me.  Of course, the main source of solace here for the listener comes from the fact that Dylan was only in his early fifties when he recorded this song.  As such therefore, it is more likely to have been a reflective piece, perhaps anticipating things to come but it is unlikely that the words were describing such conclusive emotions, observations and disillusionment at a relatively young age.    Hope continues to surface throughout however because ‘It’s not dark yet’.

In the end, none of us who care for Dylan want to find out that he feels this way.  It is painful because this wonderful artist whose music has filled our lives is telling us that he is getting old and taking stock but of course, as it is with all those we love, we just want him to go on for ever. It is almost as if he is finally reaching out to us for help and this is something he has seldom if ever asked of us before.

It does not get more generous than that by any poet, or song-writer or story-teller or however you want to view Dylan at any particular time.  In this scenario, I chose to view him as poet.

I think this song deserves the deeper analysis that is often afforded to poetry and the deeper understanding we reach by reading and speaking the words as poetry. All that being said, ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ was conceived and produced as a song, not a poem. It is sung in a beautifully haunting way with the timbre of Dylan’s older voice working so well here and with the music laid down so perfectly. There is no doubt that it is best listened to just as it is, as a gem of a song.  For what it’s worth, I regard it as his Pièce de Résistance.

Dearbhla Egan

An index to all the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Reading Dylan as Poetry – It’s Not Dark Yet 1997

  1. I tend to shy away from lyrical analysis of Dylan’s songs. They often strike me as so much wish fulfillment, or attempts at biography. You’ve done a good job here. Dylan is first and foremost a songwriter, but he has invested such depth into his lyrics (changed the way lyrics had been written) that it is totally legitimate to investigate how they may stand alone. Dylan’s own belief is that meaning is ultimately in the performance – I think he’s right and wrong. He may be *just* a songwriter, but he *is* a writer.

  2. David Allin says:

    I’m retired now. I introduced my students to Bob Dylan. This song made one so much of a fan that I started seeing him at concerts miles away from where we lived.
    One correction: In the first paragraph after the full lyrics you should have written ‘whose’ not ‘who’s’.

  3. James says:

    Great article on a great song/poem…thanks! And thanks for turning me on to Heaney’s poem.

  4. J. O'Connell says:

    When he says “I’ve been to London and I’ve been to Gay Paree” it is similar to “Either from the mountains of Madrid or from the coast of Barcelona”. You re actually there with him – no tourist brochure.

  5. Gerson Oliveira says:

    I am delighted with your article. I use to listen to this song several times during my long trips driving my pick up truck through Brazil.
    This is Dylan singing his best in my opinion.

  6. Great article but I think that when you listen o read Dylan you have to bear in mind that he makes up a character in every song like in a play and is the character that writes de song not him. From the beginning the country singer, the bluesman , the angry poet, the christian are only impersonations and behind, Robert Zimmerman stays distant and controling the situation. So in that song Dylan makes up the character that does not beileve in anything that sees the reality dark and meanigless aproching the end, but then he can write, soon after: Beyond the horizon … life has only begun… it´s easy to love..love waits forever, for one and for all.
    (excuse my english)

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    Keats: “drowsy numbness pains”
    “some dull opiate to the drains”

    Dylan: “gone down the drain”
    “Some kind of pain”

    The ghosts of John Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale
    howling through the bones of Bob Dylan’s brain.

  8. all of them tried – Dylan, Cohen, Bowie, many more – the flames, the lights – to show what the consequences were of the path chosen by humanity.
    Well now it is too late. They did their best, but the lights are going out.
    And it is getting darker, there will be no more prophets, no more leaders of song.
    Climate change marches on to the great extinction:

    “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
    It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away”

    and as water levels rise, we’ll all cram more and more into smaller spaces

    “There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
    It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”

    and maybe the final hope, looks at the mindless chattering monkey like state that humans have achieved, and says

    “I just don’t see why I should even care
    It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”

    It will soon be pitch black.

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    The ghosts and shades of Marvell, Keats, MacLeish, and TS Eliot rolled into one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *