This week, the New Yorker swerves from its normally pastoral, filigreed, contemplative poetry to publish two short poems by Bob Dylan, entitled “17” and “21.” While we applaud this new development—poetry typically competes with theater reviews in the sections-we-skip category of the magazine—there is, of course, criticism yet to be done, questions to be answered, nuances to be parsed. Are either of them any good, at all, even a little bit?
The second, “21,” is all too easily imagined as a song fragment; try reading it and not imagining the words coming out in a ’65-vintage Dylan yowl: “death silenced her pool/the day she died/hovered over/her little toy dogs/but left no trace/of itself/at her/funeral.” Allusive, startling images—kind of beautiful, really.
But the first, “17,” seems like it may well have been written on envelope in which “21” was mailed. Not just for its spurious, anachronistic Brando reference (“i really have nothing/against/marlon brando”) but a general, infelicitous tone: “I ran out t the phone booth/made a call t my wife. she wasnt home./i panicked. i called up my best friend/but the line was busy/then i went t a party but couldnt find a chair/somebody wiped their feet on me/so i decided t leave.” This, of course, is the stuff that Bushwick warehouse parties are made of, but it’s hard not to wonder if the titles in fact identify the age which the respective poems were written. It would explain a lot.