In the 1994 Italian movie Il Postino (The Postman), an uneducated village man, Mario Rouppolo, is hired as postman to deliver the mail of Pablo Neruda, a famous Chilean poet who has just arrived on Mario’s tiny island. It’s the early 1950s and Neruda is living in exile in Italy due to his political beliefs, and receives so much mail that Mario has to visit him daily. Mario knows very little about poetry and has never heard the word ‘metaphor’ until he meets Neruda.
M. Don Pablo? He asks. Metaphors. What are those?
PN. Metaphors are—How can I explain? When you talk of something, comparing it to another… For example… when you say, “the sky weeps,” what do you mean?
M. That it’s raining.
PN. Yes, very good. That’s a metaphor.
M. It’s easy then! Why has it got such a complicated name? (1)
I encountered Neruda’s poetry as a teenager, still living in South America. One morning I woke up to the chords of a love song playing on the radio, with the most exquisite lyrics I ever heard. In my semi-conscious state I thought – that’s not a song. It’s a poem. And it was; the words were from Neruda’s collection ‘The Captain’s Verses’, first published anonymously in Italy in the 1950s (precisely when the movie Il Postino is set). At this time he hadn’t yet been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; that would happen in 1971.
Of course he didn’t just write love poetry. He also used his metaphors to express his political beliefs, for which he was persecuted.
Treacherous generals; / see my dead house, / look at broken Spain
From every house burning metal flows / instead of flowers (2)
I fell in love with Neruda’s poetry from that first time I heard it, and never questioned that he was deserving of the highest literary accolade in the western world.
In 2016, however, the Nobel Prize committee broke all the rules by awarding this honour to a singer songwriter, Bob Dylan.
Having a certain concept of what ‘literature' is, and not being a Dylan fan – perhaps because most of the time I can’t understand his diction, and therefore the words in his songs – my first reaction was that of outrage. How could Dylan be in the same category as the great Neruda? But then I started to pay more attention to some of his lyrics. By reading, rather than listening to them, I was able to appreciate the mastery and power of his metaphors.
Take ‘A Hard Rain is A’gonna Fall’, for instance, which was performed by Patti Smith at the Nobel Prize Awards ceremony (which Dylan didn’t attend). This song goes back to 1962, when Dylan was barely 21 years old, and was deemed to be “The greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time” by the Rolling Stone Magazine (3). In it, Dylan uses rhetorical devices and metaphorical images to interpret the world around him, grasp his historic milieu and convey a powerful - if apocalyptic - message about the future.
The title itself is a metaphor, which was interpreted by many, due to the time it was written, as the nuclear fallout rain. Dylan later clarified that he wasn’t referring to atomic rain, but to “some sort of end that’s just gonna happen” (4).
In this epic seven-minute song, he is able to not just say the unsayable, but also to show it, by using a string of powerful metaphors and figurative language.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans / I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it / I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children / I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’ / Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter… (5)
Not everything is lost amidst this maelstrom, though. In last verse he embraces the role of prophet, and proclaims that he will “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / and reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.”
For decades, fans and critics alike have been assigning their own meaning to the verses of Hard Rain, and the internet has provided a medium where these interpretations can be discussed and compared in countless forums. The Genius music website, which claims to have “the world’s biggest collection of lyrics and musical knowledge,” has a line-by-line analysis of the song in which several contributors from the community have annotated their own meanings.
The 1960s were an era of turmoil and social change in the United States, and Dylan captured the political and cultural complexity of his time and place in Hard Rain. Blogger Teri Tynes writes:
“Taken in the historical context of 1962, the song could be interpreted to mean the arms race, nuclear threats, the power elite, the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, or even environmental pollution, the latter just emerging into consciousness with the [September 1962] publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring” (6)
Sadly, over half a century later, it seems that nothing much has changed with the world…
If I ask English-speaking people if they know Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, most people would not have heard of him. But, whether they like him or not, who doesn’t know Bob Dylan? For five decades, he has been producing an impressive body of work and many of his metaphors are as powerful as Neruda’s, and often, even more enigmatic.
In a 1965 interview, Dylan was asked “what his songs were about”. He answered “Some are about four minutes, some are about five and some, believe or not, are about 11 or 12”. (7)
Neruda too, didn’t think that it was necessary to explain his metaphors. In Il Postino, Mario asks Neruda to interpret a verse he can’t understand. The poet replies:
“When you explain poetry, it becomes banal. Better than any explanation is the experience of feelings that poetry can reveal to a nature open enough to understand it.”
1 The transcript from the screenplay can be found here: http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/i/il-postino-script-transcript-postman.html (1994)
2 From Canto General , translated from the original Spanish (1950)
3 Rolling Stone Magazine http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-bob-dylan-songs-20160524 (2016)
4 Margotin & Guesdon, Bob Dylan, All the songs: the story behind every track (2015)
5 A Hard Rain is A’gonna Fall, in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
6 Tynes, T. http://www.walkingoffthebigapple.com/2010/03/new-york-notes-on-bob-dylans-hard-rains.html (2016)
7 Telegraph media group http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3619930/Dylan-hung-up.-I-checked-the-tape.-It-seemed-apt-there-were-only-whispers.html (2011)
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,