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


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students what they think the difference is between a poem and the lyrics to a song.
    • If there is a difference, how would you distinguish between the two?
    • What is the difference between a poet and a songwriter? Is it possible to be both at the same time? Can you think of any specific examples?
  2. Read the following quote by music journalist and critic Robert Christgau: “The songwriter who seems to sound most like a poet is Bob Dylan … Poems are read or said. Songs are sung … Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet.”
  3. Ask students if they agree with Christgau that there is a difference between a song and a poem, a songwriter and a poet. Why or why not?
  4. Explain to students that in this lesson they will investigate whether Bob Dylan should be considered a songwriter, a poet, or a mixture of the two.


  1. Play the video clip of Bono discussing Dylan and Beat poetry and discuss:
    • What do you think Bono means when he says that Dylan gave other artists a new “vocabulary, a vocabulary that you never heard in that place before”?
    • What was happening in cafes in the early 1960s that wasn’t happening in the rock and roll world, according to Bono? What kind of people did Dylan meet at these cafes?
    • What does Bono mean when he says Dylan “set words free”?
  2. Distribute Handout 1 – Allen Ginsberg. Ask for a volunteer to read it aloud.
  3. Break students into pairs. Explain to students that they will be working with a partner to compare and contrast the lyrics of a Dylan song with a Ginsberg poem.
  4. Distribute Handout 2 – Comparing Texts and Handout 3 – Excerpts from “Howl” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” 
  5. Explain to students that before they begin working with their partner, they will watch videos of the two works they will be comparing, and they should try to identify any structural elements (such as rhyme scheme, repeated words, use of a chorus, etc.) of the works as they watch. (Depending on the skill level of the class, you may wish to review/clarify these elements with students.)
  6. Play the video of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965) by Bob Dylan, pointing out to students that Ginsberg appears at the left in the background during the video. Briefly discuss:
    • What did you notice about the lyrics? (Answers may include that it is a long song that uses a lot of words, that it is hard to hear all of the words, etc.)
    • Is there a rhythm to the lyrics? If so, how would you describe it?
    • Were you able to identify any other structural elements?
  7. Play a clip of Allen Ginsberg’s live reading of “Howl” (1956) and ask students to look for similarities in tone and rhythm between the poem and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
  8. Ask students to use Handout 3 (the excerpts from the two works) and what they have seen in the videos to complete their analysis of the two works on the chart in Handout 2. Briefly discuss:
    • “Howl” was published almost a decade before “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” How do you think Dylan may have been influenced by Ginsberg?
    • Based on this comparison, would you consider “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to be more of a song or a poem? Why?
  9. Bring the class back together as a whole, and ask a few pairs to share their analysis. Briefly discuss:
    • Break students back into pairs and ask each pair to compose two additional lines for either “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Howl,” keeping their original phrases in line with their analysis. (For example, students could write two lines continuing Dylan’s rhyme scheme in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or using the repetition of the word “who” in “Howl.”)
    • Reconvene the class as a whole and again ask for volunteers to share their compositions with the rest of the group. Invite others to comment on the structural and creative choices used.

Summary Activity:

Return to the quote from Robert Christgau at the beginning of the lesson: “Poems are read or said. Songs are sung … Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet.” Briefly discuss:

  • Based on your analysis, do you think Christgau is correct? Why or why not?
  • How do students view the element of performance in each piece? Is it necessary, or can the words from the poem or song stand on their own?
  • How did Dylan’s use of poetic techniques in his songwriting influence later songwriters?

Writing Prompt:

Based on what you have seen in this lesson, how would you characterize Dylan? As a poet, a songwriter, or as someone who straddled the line between the two? Use details, examples, and quotes from the lesson to support your position.


Note: for this extension, the instructor will need a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox” (1975) as well as a copy of rock band Rage Against the Machine’s recording of it.

  1. Begin by asking students to read all or part of Allen Ginsberg’s “Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox” (1975)
  2. Have students listen to the version of the poem performed by rock band Rage Against the Machine.
  3. Use the questions in the “comparing texts” handout to compare the written text of the poem with the performance.
  4. Discuss with students:
    • Does the performance change either the tone or the meaning of the poem?
    • Does the music contribute in some way to the text? If so, how and what does it contribute?
    • Does performance seem like a vital part of Beat poetry? Why or why not?
  5. Explore the historical significance of the poem, such as Ginsberg’s allusions to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Cold War, and the Kent State shootings.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 5: Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity

National Standards for Music Education


Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.3 Describe the use of the elements of art to express mood in digital or traditional art work found in the commercial environment.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A2.0 Apply artistic skills and processes to solve a variety of industry-relevant problems in a variety of traditional and electronic media.
    A2.2 Demonstrate personal style and advanced proficiency in communicating an idea, theme, or emotion in an industry-relevant artistic product.
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.4 Analyze the relationship between the artist, artistic product and audience in both an existing and self-generated project.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.2 Explore the role of art and design across various industry sectors and content areas.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.
    A6.0 Analyze characteristics of subgenres (e.g., satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that are used in poetry, prose, plays, novels, short stories, essays, and other basic genres.
    A6.1 Evaluate the ways in which irony, tone, mood, the author’s style, and the “sound” of language achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.
    A6.2 Analyze the way in which authors through the centuries have used archetypes drawn from myth and tradition in literature, film, political speeches, and religious writings.
    A6.3 Debate the philosophical arguments presented in literary works to determine whether the authors’ positions have contributed to the quality of each work and the credibility of the characters (philosophical approach).
    A7.0 Demonstrate an understanding of the elements of discourse (e.g., purpose, speaker, audience, form) when completing narrative, expository, persuasive, or descriptive writing assignments.
    A7.1 Use point of view, characterization, style (e.g., use of irony), and related elements for specific rhetorical and aesthetic purposes.
    A7.2 Use language in natural, fresh, and vivid ways to establish a specific tone.
    A7.3 Enhance meaning by employing rhetorical devices, including extended use of parallel- ism, repetition, analogy; incorporation of visual aids (e.g., graphs, tables, pictures); and the issuance of a call for action.
    A7.5 Revise text to highlight the individual voice, improve sentence variety and style, and enhance subtlety of meaning and tone in ways that are consistent with the purpose, audience, and genre.
    A8.0 Understand the key technical and technological requirements applicable to various segments of the Media and Design Arts Pathway.
    A8.5 Differentiate writing processes, formats, and conventions used for various media.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B7.4 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the actor and performance artist in the professional setting.