- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part I: Lousy poetry
- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part II: Johnnie, that’s called songwriting
- More Than Flesh And Blood (1978) part III: Do right man
by Jochen Markhorst
IV Exquisite corpse
Henry Miller was an avid ping-pong player, but in the 1930s, in his Paris years, he entertained himself with a somewhat more intellectual pastime: with the cadavre exquis game, the more ambitious, literary variant of the old parlour game Consequences. The decor must have inspired Miller: the French surrealists Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, together with their entourage, are considered the inventors of cadavre exquis some fifteen years before Miller amuses himself with it – perhaps even on this very terrace of Café de Flore or else across the street, at Les Deux Magots.
The rules are simple: as in Consequences, the poet writes a first line of verse and the first word of line two. He covers the opening line and passes the paper on to a second poet, who continues from that one word on line two, and so on. You can agree to write a rhyming poem, in which case the last word of the sentence remains uncovered. The origin of the bizarre name is obvious: Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”) comes from the first poem that Breton and his mates produce using this “technique”.
It inspires the American colleagues in the 1940s. Like the trio Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, neatly alternating, filling pages with poems like “Pull My Daisy”;
Pull my daisy tip my cup all my doors are open Cut my thoughts for coconuts all my eggs are broken Jack my Arden gate my shades woe my road is spoken Silk my garden rose my days now my prayers awaken
… which on a technical level inspires Burroughs to write his cut-up writings, and content-wise inspires Dylan to write lyrics like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.
In 1978, after the more classic writing collaboration with Jacques Levy on Desire, Dylan seems to have found a partner for this more playful form of writing collaboration: Helena Springs. At least, after two stanzas of “More Than Flesh And Blood”, the suspicion seems justified that Dylan and Springs have indulged in a game of exquisite corpse. The B-variant, that is, the one where you get to see your partner’s last word, the rhyming word. Of course, Dylan has often produced sequences of unrelated lines of poetry, especially in the mercurial years, but usually a coherent image rises therefrom, or it has a comic, absurd effect, or it offers closed, poetic tableaux. Which doesn’t happen here, mainly because there is apparently a need to suggest a narrative, an urge to vary on the soul classics in which a strong woman lashes out at her former lover.
It doesn’t really work. Maybe it’s because Springs lacks poetic instinct, maybe it’s because Dylan isn’t really in form today, but probably because the chosen exquisite corpse technique never ever produces catchy, exciting or moving poems, let alone song lyrics; a bit like the hundred typing monkeys can go on typing ad infinitum, but will never ever type out Hamlet.
Still, a full hit will pop up soon. But not yet. Not until after the second chorus, the one with perhaps the most empty line of the entire text: “Don’t discard the lily like the garment that you wear”. In itself, this is a rather refreshing manoeuvre: alternating lines in the chorus. Not unique per se, but in the art of song it is in any case not very common, to provide the recurring refrain with one consistently changing line. Dylan has already done this in extremis in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), where almost every word in every next chorus is different, and more sober in “Maggie’s Farm” (where the chorus line, by means of a minor adjustment, connects to the previous verse; I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more and I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more, for example).
In “More Than Flesh And Blood”, Dylan and Springs reserve the third line of the four-line chorus for that variation. But without any underlying idea, without any function, just varying for the sake of varying:
And that's more than flesh and blood can bear More than flesh and blood can bear I reach for you at midnight just to find you're never there And it’s more than flesh and blood can bear
In the second chorus, that third line has been changed to:
More than flesh and blood can bear Don't discard the lily like the garment that you wear,
… in the third it becomes:
More than flesh and blood can bear Do yourself a favour cos I know you're never there
… and in the final chorus:
More than flesh and blood can bear Take the saddle off your horse and give yourself a chair
Appropriately enough, these four chorus lines have the same imbalance as the whole text; the first and the last are powerful, evocative and poetic lines, the second and the third are clumsy and stylistically weak, are lousy poetry again.
Most pretentious, of course, is that lily and garment line. Both nouns have an inescapable Biblical connotation, and their appearance confirms the suspicion that Mahalia Jackson can indeed be found in the cassette case of Springs or one of the other ladies from Dylan’s background choir in the tour bus. The Lily Of The Valley is sung in every variation of one of her greatest evergreens, in “Move On Up A Little Higher” (1947). But garment and lily are everywhere in the divine Ms Jackson’s enormous catalogue anyway (“How I Got Over”, “These Are They”, “I Would Rather Have Jesus”).
The somewhat peculiar expression “Don’t discard the lily” is perhaps nowhere to be found as such, but is actually quite appropriate in this song. In the Bible, the lily symbolises, both with Solomon in the Old Testament and with Jesus in the New Testament (Luke 12;27), something like pure, innocent beauty and modest, lower-class origins. All of sudden, this would create a bridge to that strange opening line You hate me cos I’m pure – and all of a sudden some coherence in the wavering, unsteady lyrics surfaces. But alas; the hopelessly hollow continuation …like the garment that you wear destroys all emerging pleasant surprise again. It is at best a stroke of luck, that line from lily to the opening line’s pure.
A comparable glimmer of hope is unfortunately not to be found in that other strange refrain line, Do yourself a favour cos I know you’re never there. It is not even an ordinary non-sequitur, a false fallacy, but really one level thereunder: an anacoluthon, an incorrect sentence. A corpse, but hardly exquisite.
Luckily, the first Dylan-worthy one-liner is coming up.
To be continued. Next up: More Than Flesh And Blood part V:
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits (only German)
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
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