“The Talkers Were Talking”: Whitman, Dylan and the Tale of the Tribe

“I have heard the talkers were talking . . . .
the talk of the beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855)

“You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud.”

–Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)


Talk, talk, talkin’.

It seems like half of being a poet is getting a friggin’ word in – quelling the babble of the masses, like a great man over the rabble, like Neptune calmin’ the sloshin’ seas, as Virgil might’ve spoke some centuries ago in a Roman ruin.

Virgil, Whitman, Dylan. Each tackled the form of the long poem in a sense; from the classically oriented epic to the still evolving tradition of the American ballad, there’s something terribly prophetic about long-verse poetry – and perhaps even apocalyptic as a result of its encyclopedic scope. This document, this cultural artifact of our making – it defines the boundaries of our start and finish, satisfying our paradoxical desires for Genesis and Revelation. Indeed, each and every era marks the beginning and ending of something else, and each and every era demands a yawpin’ bard to shout seemingly unintelligible things from a modest rooftop – to show us the way, to shine our light into history’s oblivion.

800px-Bob_Dylan_in_November_1963-5
“Bobby Dylan,” as the college yearbook lists him: St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, November 1963

Ezra Pound coined the phrase “tale of the tribe” to denote the purpose of long-verse poetry, specifically in reference to his own Cantos. Pound believed that legends and tales told through the long poem medium encompassed the totality a culture – including its histories and values – given the sheer length and magnitude of a traditional long poem. To Pound, the poet took on an incredibly prophetic role; they allowed entire populations, spanning space and time, a rare insight into the spectral zeitgeist of their culture (Bernstein).

By speaking different elements of the American identity into existence, Whitman and Dylan profoundly weaved tales of the tribe, albeit over a hundred years apart. Whereas Whitman bespoke the optimism that propelled American individualism and described the plurality that best enables American democracy in detail, Dylan leered toward his disenfranchised audience – “Now you don’t talk so loud” – as he pulled the curtain back on the blatant lies behind the glowing facade American exceptionalism. Indeed, perhaps if Whitman showed us why we should celebrate the American identity, Dylan taught us why we should remain skeptical of its authenticity.


Sources:

Bernstein, Michael André. The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic. Princeton University Press, 1980. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvgsp.

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