Joker in the Pack

An anthology inspired by Bob Dylan's winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, featuring poetry by members of the Hall Writers’ Forum. Edited by Lucy Newlyn with a Foreword by Neil Corcoran.

Joker in the Pack


Did Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature which he was awarded in 2016? Can the lyrics of his songs be read as poems? Would Leonard Cohen have been a more appropriate winner of the prize, given that he had a distinguished reputation as a published poet in addition to his superb output as a singer song-writer? Should Dylan have accepted the Nobel laureateship, given its historical connection with the arms trade? How relevant is this political issue to an artist who allegedly 'sold his soul' to the industry, and may have reneged on his early leftist views?

These are just some of the questions that were hotly debated on the Hall Writers' Forum (and further afield) in the wake of the controversial 2016 announcement. The debate was so fierce and so interesting that it prompted a group of Hall Writers to respond creatively, some of them in verse. I decided that the resulting work should be collected together in an anthology and published under the title Joker in the Pack. Editing this anthology was an arduous process, but great fun. In the summer of 2017, it appeared in book form, as well as in an online publication which you can access here.


My contributions to the anthology

Personally, I was delighted by the award of the Nobel prize to Dylan, and believe that his songs (as much as Cohen's) deserve to be considered (and indeed studied) as poetry. Oral poetic traditions go back a very long way in history; and as soon as poetry is written down it becomes 'literature'. No problems then with his candidature for the prize; and he is a genius who unquestionably deserved full recognition. The political issues are more troubling. After long debate with myself, I concluded that although he deserved the prize, he should have turned it down in protest against its connection with the trade in armaments.

I'm posting here the poems I contributed to Joker in the Pack, together with one additional poem which didn't make the final cut. More verse on this topic may well follow as I go on thinking about Dylan and his importance to the world.

First up, a cento -- that is, a poem assembled out of miscellaneous lines from other poems. If you can make a cento out of poems, why not out of songs? It was fun choosing characteristic Dylan lines and making them fit together, especially as I decided to go for rhyme.

“Everything passes” – a cento

It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.
Strike another match, go start anew.
I just walk along, I stroll and I sing –
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
Bird fly high by the light of the moon:
everything passes, everything changes,
freedom’s just around the corner for you.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in,
Blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

Seems like I been down this way before;
we just saw it from a different point of view.
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard?
Lord only knows I’ve paid some dues.
I've been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies;
sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
and every one of them words rings true.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in,
blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

There's an evenin’ haze settlin’ over town
lotta water under the bridge, lotta other stuff too.
I'm locked in tight now and I’m out of range
on the avenue, tangled up in blue.
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
I just gotta pick myself up off the floor:
everybody’s going and I want to go too.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in,
Blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

People talk of situations, read books, repeat quotations
but with truth so far off what good will it do?
Dreams never did work for me anyway
so I just grew tangled up in blue.
I see better days and I do better things,
I know there is no help I can bring,
and anyway it didn’t ring true.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in,
blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

I’m lost in the crowd, all my tears are gone,
don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through.
Everything I touch seems to disappear
like a bird that flew tangled up in blue.
Some day maybe I’ll remember to forget –
the evening winds are still, I’ve lost the way and will.
There are no words but these to tell what's true.

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in,
blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

Next, a poem that looks at how Dylan morphed from protest singer to rock artist. (I'm a fan of Pete Seeger, and my favourite Dylan songs date back to the early sixties, the phase Seeger approved of without qualification.)

A Friend of Mine

for Gerard Lally

“I dreamed I saw Bob Dylan
alive as you or me
He was rising from the roadside
where he’d wrecked his Triumph T
but his vision it had altered -
his fiery breath was gone.
When he came back from Striebel Road
his protest days were done.

Was this the man who’d sung to us
of human slavery -
who’d shone a light into our souls
and taught us to be free?
Or was this just some substitute
whose former self had died,
now come with his disclaimers
to show us how he'd lied?”

My friend he spoke in sadness
a long long time ago
when the world was full of madness
and a cutting wind did blow.
Oh! When we are very young,
it’s hard to understand
that a posthumous existence
is the best there is to hand.

"I dreamed I saw Bob Dylan
lying stretched out on the road.
Another man rose up from him
to bear his weary load.
And all his life thereafter
to placate the bourgeoisie
he camouflaged his anger
in fine shades of irony."

And now, a long poem about the Nobel prize, in which I clarify my position. Writing this was painful, and the issue goes on troubling me.

Bad Faith Blues

Composed in anticipation of the Nobel Prize ceremony. To be sung as nearly as possible to the tune of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”

He dreams that he’s in Sweden –
all the winners they are feedin’ in the hall.
Some are livin’, some are dead,
their words whirlin’ in his head –
he's not sure he gets the drift of them at all.
“Could you kindly tell us, mister, just what you mean to do
’bout this million-dollar prize that’s offered now to you?”
He wakes wond’rin’ how much longer he can stall...

The committee they have spoken
and the whole wide world has woken to the sound.
Hungry journalists are prowlin’
and an eejit wind is howlin’
so the jokerman is hidin', gone to ground.
“Could you briefly tell us, mister, just why you might refuse
this world-renowned award, that even you could use?
The silence is a-growin’ most profound…"

The commentators blather
while excited fans they gather in the park;
you can hear the hound-dogs bayin’
at the songs they are a-playin’,
their lone tunes strayin’ nightly through the dark.
“Could you please just tell us, mister, what it is you plan to say?
You’re invincible now, it's been your lucky day.
This most mysterious silence, it’s stark."

The jokerman he’s pausin’
and the puzzle he’s a-causin’ helps him think.
He hears the rooster crowin’
and the winter wind a-blowin';
knows he's in deep - any deeper and he’ll sink.
“Could you please soon guide me, misters, as to what I need to say?
This prize, yes, sure - it's dynamite, it’ll blow us all away
much sooner than you'll see a blind man blink.”

The séance is now endin’
and the Nobel Dead are sendin’ their advice –
But their messages they mumble
in fumblin’ words that jumble
so they need repeatin’ loudly, at least twice –
“I can tell you clearly, monsieur, just what you need to do:
Jean-Paul Sartre here, I’m trying to get through…”
(He fades on “that's good faith” and “sacrifice.”)

Several weeks have now been passin’
while the Whitehouse has been assin’ around.
The President’s been callin’
but a hard rain’s been fallin’
and the joker he’s still nowhere to be found.
“Sincerely, brother, tell me, just what you'd like to do.
If not for your country, please accept it - just for you!”
(The blackmail text arrives without a sound.)

The joker’s silence is now broken
and his words are clearly spoken, not in jest.
Yes, he’s speechless, but he’s proud
to tell the crowd (and tell ’em loud)
that he’s likely to turn up, so what’s the twist?
The hippies are dispersin’ in the dawn,
he’s filmin’ his own shadows on the lawn,
he’s choosin’ his best top-hat for the feast.

He’s the guilty undertaker,
the century’s shame-maker, and he prowls
in these videos he’s makin’
on the lonesome bad faith road he’s a-takin’
’mong the tombs he’s now forsakin’, with the owls.
"Could you please remind us mister, just how you mean to spend
the million dollar blood-money, of which there is no end?”
He just shrugs into the camera and scowls.

And now he’s there in Sweden –
all the winners they are feedin’ in the hall.
Is he livin’, is he dead?
There’s a whirlin’ in his head,
he's not sure he gets the drift of this at all.
“Could you kindly tell us, mister, just what you mean to do
with this Nobel prize that’s coming now to you?”
He winks and points toward the writin' on the wall.

The joker he sits hummin’
as the ceremony’s comin’ to an end.
The audience starts a-cheerin’
as the speech-time is a-nearin’ –
but he’s speechless and not plannin’ to pretend.
“Could you kindly listen, misters, as I sing you all my song?
if you recognise the words, then feel free to sing along.”
He smirks and growls out “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

The Committee they’re a-starin’
as the last verse is a-wearin’ to a close.
There’s surely some mistake
and they don’t know what to make
of this loser who won’t speechify in prose.
“Can you clarify please, chairman, how this pseud can qualify
for our million-dollar cheque? He’s just re-sellin’ us a lie.
Can we go back to the winner that we chose?”

Part Two

All the laureates have gone,
and the joker he lies lonely in his bed.
Though it’s dark he’s not sleepin’
for somethin’ has come creepin’
from among the tunes still playin’ in his head.
“Could you kindly tell me jester, just what you mean to do
if the Final Judgment comes, and you’re stuck inside the blues?
Will your songs still plainly speak after you’re dead?”

“When the organ-grinder calls
and Allen Ginsberg’s shadow falls across your grave,
when Walt Whitman speaks to you
but Greenwich Village cuts you through,
and your ghost is tiptoein’ along the nave,
will you reassure me jester that what you have in mind
is the comfortin’ of creatures, your fellow humankind,
not some cynic’s surreal masquerade you crave?"

The questions have been comin’
and his mind’s been numbin’ quite a while.
He falls asleep wond’rin’
’bout the words he’s been plund’rin’
and mixin’ and sund’rin’ with his style.
In a dream he sees the man who’s speakin’, and he knows
that it's Woody, come to guide him as he goes
on his speechless seekin’ ramble, without guile.

They’re not headin’ for the beach,
far from the twisted reach of all remorse –
Woody’s leadin’ him within
to the visions of his sin:
Hypocrisy, and Compromise, and worse.
“Hey, Mr Troubadour, just what d’you mean to do
by takin’ me in torchlight through dark passages with you,
where my song starts goin’ jerkily off course?”

Woody’s not smilin’, and all night
his light is shinin’ bright, through the doors –
which he’s openin’ and closin’
while the jokerman is dozin’
in this house that’s crammed with junk on all its floors.
“Tell me jester, please, whose hats are those a-spillin’
from the wardrobes, chests and drawers that they’re fillin’,
which are mirrored all in rows, and in their scores?”

“Who's that dandy there, paradin’ up and down?
Who’s the sad clown, and why's he fakin’?
Where do the fat profits go
that he rakes in for each show?
Whose official videos are these he’s makin’?
Could you tell me in plain words where his disused conscience hides
when he's porin’ over details that his bank statement confides?
Whose songs is he takin’, whose ways is he forsakin’?

“Is that his safe under the bed
labelled in red, with a bloody stain
that’s hid, under the lid,
of which he can’t get rid,
written in vinyl, for his personal gain?
Who’s that livin’ in a room labelled Neoliberal Illusions
all day long a-hummin’ and a-strummin’ his confusions,
one hand wavin’ free, one solderin’ a chain?”

“In a tube station underground
when noone is around, you can hear
a lonesome hobo playin’
an old song that’s stayin’
fresh and near – the same sad tune, year after year.
Can you please teach us, mister, his tune we’re forgettin’
in this house someone’s been lettin’, where the sun is settin’
and all the singin’ will soon disappear?”

The dream-vision has ended
and the ghost has wended on his way.
The joker's still weepin’
as sunlight comes creepin’
across the bed where his tired old body lay.
“Can you kindly tell us, mister, just what you mean to do
’bout this Nobel Lecture that’s expected now from you?”
A Statement will be shortly on its way.

An acid poem, this next one -- so much so that I published it anonymously in Joker in the Pack.

The Proxy

The jester was too busy
to collect his Nobel Prize
so someone else stood in for him,
with starry starry eyes.

In front of many thousands
in their spangled frocks and coats
she sang the best of all his songs
and won the people’s votes.

But she lacked a teleprompter
to remind her of his lines
and her nerves they proved too shaky
so she stumbled several times.

Like a scared kid in a school-play,
her way she couldn't find
and when she asked to start again
the audience clapped – how kind!

The media were active
spreading news of her mistake:
"Oh, what a fool to fluff his song!
What a stupid mess to make!"

The moral of this story
is not very hard to guess:
If you’re terrified of crowds
and half-shamed by your success

Then get a willing woman
to suffer all your fright;
you can stay at home and watch
if you’re not busy on the night.

There’s no better kind of proxy
than an ageing female star
who'll break down for you, dear jester,
coward-genius that you are.

The last of my poems in the anthology is a haiku. This came to me when I was standing on our back doorstep in deep midwinter thinking about Dylan.

On the doorstep

Three droplets of rain
hang from a crumpled trefoil
of summer jasmine.

Catching the light, they
tremble like tears. A jester’s
wintry cap and bells.

And here is a poem I decided not to include in the anthology because it's much more personal than the others. It was prompted by a moment of confrontation with my daughter Emma, which reminded me of confrontations I used to have in the seventies with my parents when playing Dylan's albums too loudly.

Too loud

My daughter stands in the doorway
berating me for playing Dylan too loud.
Your old road is rapidly aging...
She walks in, turns the sound down,
stays to lecture me angrily.

Oh, little does she know
the irony of mirroring, of repetition,
in this all-too-reminiscent gesture:
my tiny personal revolution
spectacularly undone.

The scene trembles. Two moments in time
at opposite ends of life are held
in troubled unison by what is happening.
Not a wrenching, but its reverse:
an interlocking of generations
in the twists and turns of a double helix.