Essential Question

How did Bob Dylan merge poetry with popular music?


“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.”

— Bob Dylan

“I’ll never be able to write like Dylan. He thinks of these fantastic word combinations. It doesn’t matter if you get lost in one of his compositions, you can get hung up on just two words – the man is a poet.”

— Paul McCartney

“Dylan has merged poetry, myth, and song, with an unsurpassed artistic ambition. Dylan’s fusions…can also be understood as a fulfillment of what the Modernist Ezra Pound foresaw as Modernism’s future, reincarnating the spirit of Homer’s epics and classical Greek drama in their mixture of words and music.”

— Dylan biographer Sean Wilentz

No investigation of Bob Dylan’s influence on popular culture is complete without careful attention to the highly poetic nature of his lyrics, which are widely considered among the finest in the history of popular song. Dylan’s work bears the deep influence of poets who came before him, particularly those of the postwar Beat Generation, such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. His own compositions in turn transformed the possibilities of what Rock and Pop could do not simply as music, but as a literary force. Almost singlehandedly, Dylan expanded the parameters of what subject matter, language and tone were suitable for a Rock song. To consider, for example, the shift, from the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964) to “A Day in the Life” (1967) is to see the influence of Dylan, who inspired a generation of songwriters to think of lyric writing as not just a craft but an art form.

In this lesson, students will investigate Dylan as poet by comparing the literary structure of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” They will investigate the differences between poetry and song and examine the similarities between the two in terms of textual structure and style, using their analyses to write original extensions of the poem or song.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The literary definitions of tone, diction, rhyme, repetition, and rhythm
    • A basic approach to literary analysis
    • A brief history of Bob Dylan’s early musical influences
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Complete a simple poetry analysis
    • Make connections between beat poetry and folk music
    • Connect the structure of beat poetry and folk music to the larger artistic climate of the time
    • Use their analysis to write an extension of Dylan’s song or Ginsberg’s poem
    • Common Core: Students will compare and contrast the textual forms of poetry and song (CCSS Reading 5; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Reading 9)
    • Common Core: Students will evaluate and characterize the music of Bob Dylan (CCSS Writing 1; CCSS Writing 9; CCSS Language 3)