Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics

Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics | Chicago Tribune:
Bob Dylan has a poetic license to echo lyrics

Published September 17, 2006

We're living in an age of word crimes, and Bob Dylan is the latest alleged felon.

With his new best-selling album, "Modern Times," Dylan stands accused of the enduring crime of word theft. His alleged victim is one Henry Timrod, a Southern Civil War poet who died in 1867.

When I read about Dylan in The New York Times last week (please note I'm attributing my source), I wasn't persuaded to convict him of plagiarism based on the primary example in the story.

From Dylan's lyrics: "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours."

From a Timrod poem: "A round of precious hours/ Oh! here, where in that summer noon I basked/ And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers."

If rhyming "flowers" and "hours" were proof of plagiarism, we'd have to round up every 4th-grade poet in America.

As for "frailer than flowers," it's a sweet alliteration but I wouldn't be surprised if it also has spontaneously leaked out of the pens of a few moody college sophomores.

Nevertheless, several other examples added up to a persuasive case that Timrod's ghost had crooned next to Dylan as he composed.

Timrod: "How then, O weary one! Explain/The sources of that hidden pain?"

Dylan: "Can't explain/The sources of this hidden pain."

I hear an echo, but I don't hear a crime.

Stories of plagiarism are often mystery stories. Did the accused plagiarize or didn't he? If he didn't, how did that similarity happen?

Did he read something and unconsciously summon it up when writing? If so, does that qualify as crime or merely as an understandable WUI--writing under the influence of someone else?

All words are mysteries. It's amazing that with a limited number of symbols and sounds you and I can give shape to thoughts, can make them visible and possible to hear, can trade the contents of our minds. How amazing that if I learn the word "Gracias" I can communicate with a person who doesn't understand "Thanks."

It's precisely because words are so mysterious, so mystical, that I'm not amazed when it turns out that two people have expressed uncannily similar thoughts in uncannily similar ways.

By their nature, words are uncanny.

Sometimes what seem like word crimes are just coincidences. Two writers reach into the zeitgeist and, from our common pool of feelings, ideas and phrases, pluck the same ones.

An example. Recently when Barack Obama was touring Africa, feted like a king, I thought of writing a column about a phenomenon with a name I'd invented: Obamania.

I had the foresight to google my clever new word first. Sure enough, there it was out there in the ether, used by other people who probably believed that they, too, were originals.

Wittingly or not, we all express ourselves under the influence of others. Sometimes the influence is so diffused in the culture that similarities of expression can be chalked up to coincidence. Sometimes that influence is so distinct and pervasive that its presence should be labeled theft.

But sometimes it's somewhere in between. Beyond coincidence, short of crime. An artist takes scraps of other people's expression and makes something entirely new, something that, mysteriously, is more beautiful and compelling than the odds and ends it came from. Songwriters have more license in that regard than journalists.

And, of course, words are also commodities--for sale in books, newspapers, CDs. It's that fact, I think, more than artistic purity, that animates our recent crusades against word crimes. Word sellers don't want to be ripped off. Buyers don't want used goods.

But our modern fixation on words as commodities, as property, as instruments of crime doesn't do justice to their messiness and their mysteries.

It's only honorable to acknowledge your influences, to the extent that you recognize them. Bob Dylan could have saved himself some trouble by mentioning Henry Timrod in his liner notes. The fact that he didn't doesn't make him criminal.

In case no one else has ever said this: Even the most original people aren't entirely original.

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