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Tangled Up In School: Teaching Dylan In Boston

Bob Dylan's song lyrics are the focus of study in Kevin Barents' writing classes at Boston University.
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Bob Dylan's song lyrics are the focus of study in Kevin Barents' writing classes at Boston University.

You may not need a "weatherman to know which way the wind blows," but you can take a college class to help decipher Bob Dylan songs. For the past three semesters, Boston University lecturer Kevin Barents has been teaching Bob Dylan's lyrics.

Students in Barents' writing seminar are taught the mechanics and artistry of poetry through Dylan's songwriting. And even if they focus primarily on Dylan's words, Barents says he encourages his students to consider the relationship between the words and the music.

"I don't think this needs to be a surgical separation," Barents says. "It doesn't mean that you need to totally disregard the musical context of the song."

Barents finds plenty to work with in Dylan's 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Lines like "You tamed the lion in my cage / But it just wasn't enough to change my heart" from Idiot Wind are fertile ground for discussion.

"At first you might think that the 'lion' is the heart and the 'cage' might evoke the ribcage," Barents explains. "But when it's distinguished from the heart later on in the line, you need to go back and reassess it. Lines like that have a great deal of mystery about them that make them particularly ripe for relistening and allow for a range of interpretation."

Another Dylan classic that makes it onto Barents' syllabus is John Wesley Harding, from 1967.

"Occasionally it can be fruitful to look at the arrangement of syllables," Barents says. "John Wesley Harding is often cited as one of Dylan's densest and most literary albums. Some of this effect comes from the fact that much of the lyrics are in perfect iambic pentameter. That means there's a regular progression of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables."

Barents readily admits he is a huge fan of Dylan's music, but he also feels Dylan has an important place in the history of American poets.

"I think that he's one of the best contemporary American poets, even if you just look at the lyrics stripped of the music. He's been an important link between some of the great poets behind him, like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and in turn he's been an inspiration and subject for poets like Paul Muldoon and [Allen] Ginsberg."

Barents' classes are popular sellouts each semester. Students write him personally to get in, and each time around, he has to turn students away.

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