Bob Dylan's Poetics

Bob Dylan's Poetics

How the Songs Work

By Timothy Hampton

A close examination of Bob Dylan's songs that locates his transgressive style within a long history of modern (and modernist) art.

Distributed for Zone Books

Hardcover $29.95 T £25.00





A close examination of Bob Dylan's songs that locates his transgressive style within a long history of modern (and modernist) art.

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature recognized Bob Dylan as a major modern artist, elevating his work beyond the world of popular music. In this book, Timothy Hampton focuses on the details and nuances of Dylan's songs, showing how they work as artistic statements designed to create meaning and elicit emotion. With Bob Dylan's Poetics, Hampton offers a unique examination of both the poetics and politics of Dylan's compositions. He studies Dylan not as a pop hero, but as an artist, as a maker of songs.  

Focusing on the interplay of music and lyric, Hampton traces Dylan's innovative use of musical form, his complex manipulation of poetic diction, and his dialogues with other artists, from Woody Guthrie to Arthur Rimbaud. Moving from Dylan's earliest experiments with the blues through his mastery of rock and country to his densely allusive more recent recordings, Hampton offers a detailed account of Dylan's achievement. Locating Dylan in the long history of artistic modernism, he examines the relationships among form, genre, and the political and social themes that crisscross Dylan's work.  With this book, Hampton offers both a nuanced engagement with the work of a major artist and a meditation on the contribution of song at times of political and social change.


$29.95 T | £25.00 ISBN: 9781942130154 288 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • Indispensable.... Setting some gold standard for what Dylan-based works can do, Bob Dylan's Poetics goes chord by chord and line by line, showing 'how the songs work' in form and are changed through performance.

    Robert Sean Wilson

    Los Angeles Review of Books

  • The best account thus far of Dylan's poetics: how—by what concrete means—Dylan's songs come to signify, and how remarkably they do. Hampton makes the crucial distinction that Dylan's real medium is song, not just the written word and not just poetry.

    D. Montanari


  • One of the more thought-provoking books on Dylan's songwriting. The casual fan and the Dylan obsessive will both be surprised by some of Hampton's insights.... A stimulating and wide-ranging study.

    Stride Magazine

  • With a style that turns analysis into a form of suspense, Hampton can walk you through “Visions of Johanna” or “Summer Days” the way the art historian T. J. Clark can walk you through Manet's Olympia. There's the same generosity of spirit, the same love for the work and the social meanings it absorbs, transforms and sends back.

    Greil Marcus

    Rolling Stone

  • As much fun as I've had with a book this year. You needn't be a scholar to appreciate Hampton's clear-eyed analysis of how Bob Dylan does what he does and why it's different from what a lot of people think that he does. Hampton considers a large swath of Dylan's catalog, providing thrilling (yes, thrilling) readings on a number of songs, from "Talkin' New York" (the first Dylan song officially released on vinyl) to his 2016 Frank Sinatra covers.

    Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


  • This is a truly powerful book written by one of the leading scholars of the history of poetry today. The writing is clear and intellectually most exciting: Dylan's idiosyncratic genius is explained more compellingly than ever before. Hampton remains relevant, exciting and persuasively accurate as he shows the genesis of the songs as musical and literary forms and assesses their originality. Bob Dylan's Poetics: How the Songs Work will become a standard account, destined to appear in class lists under “required reading”; it contains the searching close readings of songs that will both enable future study and require contestation for an alternative account: the study sets a gold standard.

    Nigel Smith

    Princeton University

  • From classrooms to the Supreme Court to the street corner, nobody doesn't know Dylan songs. Yet there is surprising little writing that addresses exactly how the songs speak to us and weave themselves into the web of American language. Timothy Hampton's Bob Dylan's Poetics: How the Songs Work is a rigorous model for how this kind of critical analysis can be done. Hampton's well-written book is the first one I would recommend to someone fascinated and mystified by Dylan's half a century of ranging among the things that songs can articulate.

    Charles Hartman

    Poet in Residence at Connecticut College

  • This is an essential Dylan book and unlike any other. Hampton left me with a deeper appreciation of Dylan's uniqueness as both songwriter and singer; his methods, his lyrical and poetic brilliance, his many voices.

    Dean Wareham

    musician (Galaxie 500, Luna) and author of Black Postcards