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LIANE HANSEN, host:

You may not need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, but you can take a college class to help you decipher Bob Dylan songs. For the last three semesters, Boston University lecturer Kevin Barents has been teaching Bob Dylan's lyrics.

Students in Barents' writing seminar are taught the mechanics and artistry of poetry through Dylan's songwriting. Kevin Barents joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program, Kevin.

Professor KEVIN BARENTS (Boston University): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: So do you separate the words from the music?

Prof. BARENTS: I think generally in our class, we do focus on the lyrics sort of divorced from the other elements of voice and music. But I don't think that this needs to be a surgical separation. I always encourage my students to consider the relationship between the words and the music.

HANSEN: Give us an example of a lyric that is particularly instructional.

Prof. BARENTS: My favorite album is "Blood on the Tracks," and I think that the song "Idiot Wind," there is a line that says you tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn't enough to change my heart.

(Soundbite of song, "Idiot Wind")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) …in my cage, but it just wasn't enough to change my heart.

Prof. BARENTS: But I think that, you know, at first you might think that the lion is the heart and that my cage might evoke ribcage, but when it's distinguished from the heart later on in the line, you need to go back and reassess it. Is it pride? Is it jealousy? I think that lines like have a great deal of mystery about them that make them particularly ripe for re-listening, and that allow for a range of interpretation.

HANSEN: How have your students responded to "Idiot Wind"?

Prof. BARENTS: I think a lot of students really like "Blood on the Tracks." I think maybe one argument we'll have this semester is "Blood on the Tracks" versus "Blonde on Blonde." So I definitely have a lot of students who react to the personal nature of that album. Some students feel that "Idiot Wind" is a bit harsh of a song. But I think a lot of students really respond to the lyricism of that album.

(Soundbite of song, "John Wesley Harding")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor. He traveled with a gun in every hand…

HANSEN: "John Wesley Harding" is popular in your class?

Prof. BARENTS: That's one of my personal favorites.

(Soundbite of song, "John Wesley Harding")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) …he opened many a door. But he was never known to hurt an honest man.

Prof. BARENTS: I think occasionally it can be fruitful to look at the arrangement of syllables. And I think, you know, the album "John Wesley Harding" is often cited as one of Dylan's densest and most literary albums. And I think that some of its effect comes from the fact that much of the lyrics are in perfect iambic pentameter. That means that there's a regular progression of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables. Da-duh, da-duh, da-duh, da-duh. And Dylan emphasizes this pattern, I think, by singing stressed syllables on the musical stress.

(Soundbite of song, "John Wesley Harding")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) …but he was always known to lend a helping hand.

HANSEN: Do you consider Bob Dylan to be one of the country's great poets?

Prof. BARENTS: I do. I think that he's one of the best contemporary American poets, even if you just look at the lyrics stripped of the music. I think he's been an important poet - a link between some of the great poets behind him, like Pound and Eliot. And in turn, he's been an inspiration and subject for poets like Paul Muldoon, Ginsberg.

HANSEN: It sounds like your class is pretty popular. You give a sold-out performance every semester?

Prof. BARENTS: I definitely do, and I often have a lot of students who write me hoping to get in. I have to turn away students every semester.

HANSEN: So Kevin Barents, why don't you give us a favorite Dylan tune to take us out with, and why you wanted us to use that one.

Prof. BARENTS: Okay. Well, spring is in the air in Boston, so I think maybe "Buckets of Rain" would be a good choice. The guitar, I think, is gorgeous and it just has a great sadness and nostalgia to it.

HANSEN: Kevin Barents teaches Bob Dylan's lyrics at Boston University. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thank you very much and good luck.

Prof. BARENTS: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of song, "Buckets of Rain")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Buckets of rain, Buckets of tears, Got all them buckets comin' out of my ears. Buckets of moonbeams in my hand, You got all the love, honey baby, I can stand.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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