Bob Dylan & Lawrence Ferlinghetti: from Mona Lisa’s trial to the Reader’s Digest

Bob Dylan And Lawrence Ferlinghetti

By Larry Fyffe

Under the influence of poet William Carlos Williams, Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes sardonic poems in plain language about the American vision of a Promised Land shattered by the material greed of New Babylon, a theme that singer Bob Dylan picks up on:

And I am waiting
For a reconstructed May Flower
To reach America
With its picture story and TV rights
Sold in advance to the natives
(Ferlinghetti: I Am Waiting)

The poem inspires a Dylan song filled with black humour::

I was riding on the May Flower
When I thought I spied some land …
I think I’ ll call it America ….
Captain Arab he started
Writing up some deeds
He said, Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads
(Bob Dylan: 115th Dream)

Another pointed poem by the poet who associates with the ‘Beats’ like Allen Ginsberg:

I have read the Reader’s Digest
From cover to cover
And noted the close identification
Of the United States with the Promised Land
Where every coin is marked
In God We Trust
But the dollar bills do not have it
Being gods unto themselves
(Ferlinghetti: Autobiography)

And a song, momentum and humour added, inspired thereby:

He said he’s going to kill me
If I don’t get out the door
In two seconds flat
‘You unpatriotic
Rotten Commie rat’
Well, he threw a Reader’s Digest
At my head and I did run
I did a somersault
As I seen him get his gun
(Bob Dylan: Motorcycle Nightmare)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti introduces ‘academic’ poems and works of art to the streets by quoting poetic fragments, and referencing paintings in his own work – a rhetorical device Bob Dylan goes on to use, alluding to poems and paintings in his song lyrics:

In Goya’s great scenes we seem to see
The people of the world
Exactly at the moment when
They first attained the title
‘Suffering Humanity’
(Ferlinghetti: In Goya’s Great Scenes)

One famous painting by Francisco Goya is ‘The Third Of May’. Modern poet William Carlos Williams uses the literary technique, referring to painter Peter Breughel, the Elder:

In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess,
The dances go round, they go round and
Around, the squeal, and the blare and the
Tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
Tipping their bellies
(William Carlos Williams: The Dance)

And so does singer Bob Dylan as he comments, in his song lyrics, on the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci:

Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile
But Mona Lisa musta had the highways blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
(Bob Dylan: Visions Of Johanna)

Ferlinghetti, in his poems, makes allusions to other poets, especially to those Romantically-inclined:

Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
Keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
‘Over Nothing’
Move forward with dignity
Hand in vest
Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time, my darling
And we are not still young and easy
Don’t shout
(Ferlinghetti: Under Wear)

Poking a bit of fun at Dylan Thomas’ lack of political action while referencing Fern Hill (Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs); Death Shall Have No Dominion (And death shall have no dominion/ Dead men they shall be one); and Do Not Go Gentle (Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight/And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way/Do not go gentle into that good night).

Bob Dylan, wary to some degree of being taken in by organized political activists, relates to Dylan Thomas’ sympathy for the plight of the individual facing demands to conform:

One by one, they followed the sun
One by one, until there were none
Two by two, to their lovers they flew
Two by two, into the foggy dew
Three by three, they danced on the sea
Three by three, they danced on the shore
(Bob Dylan: Two By Two)

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines


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