Louise Glück (1943– ), “The Untrustworthy Speaker” (1990)
Winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, Louise Glück has had a long and distinguished career as one of America’s leading poets. Glück is an intensely personal poet whose work often arises from her own experience, but her emotionally intense poetry often links this personal experience with nature or with larger contexts derived from myth to produce a broader commentary on life in the contemporary world. Her poems explore subjects such as trauma and desire in open and frank ways that become meditations on feelings such as sadness and isolation. She has received considerable scholarly attention, especially for her construction of interesting poetic personae and for the dialogues between autobiography and classical myth that inform her work. In addition to her writing, Glück teaches as an adjunct professor and serves as Resident Writer at Yale University.
Glück’s poem “The Untrustworthy Speaker” draws upon the literary conceit of the unreliable narrator but makes this unreliability a very personal and emotionally intense quality, rather than a matter of literary play. In this case, the speaker in the poem, one of Glück’s carefully crafted personae, warns that nothing she says is to be trusted because she has been so emotionally damaged by trauma. Thus, despite her great facility with language, she is too wounded to be able to present an unbiased view of anything.
“The Untrustworthy Speaker” is powerful in its emotional intensity, but it is rhetorically quite complex. It is, in fact, built on two paradoxes, or at least two versions of the same paradox. The first of these is a standard philosophical paradox known as the “liar paradox.” If someone tells you that they shouldn’t be believed because they always lie, the interpretation of that statement can never be final. If they always lie, then they must be lying when they say they always lie, which means they don’t always lie. Thus, the statement implies that if A is true, then not A is true, which is a fundamental violation of the binary thinking that informs the Aristotelian logic that has been so central to the Western philosophical tradition.
On the other hand, this poem is not an abstract philosophical exercise, which leads to the more important version of this paradox. It is true that a straightforward reading of this poem leads to a conventional liar paradox in which we realize that this speaker is so broken and traumatized that nothing they say is reliable, including the statement that nothing they say is reliable. On a more intensely emotional level, though, what we see is a speaker who is being completely open and honest about her struggles. Perhaps she herself doesn’t understand the workings of her own mind, but she is being entirely sincere in revealing this information to us. Her insistence that she cannot be trusted is thus such an open confession that it seems difficult not to trust her sincerity, even if neither she nor we can finally know the truth of anything stated in the poem, which—in perhaps the biggest paradox of all—depends both on this absolute openness and sincerity and on the absolute impossibility of determining a final meaning for anything in the poem.
For example, the poem contains what are apparently two references to the speaker’s sister. In fourth stanza, she suggests that she might have gripped her sister’s hand (or perhaps wrist) so tightly as to leave bruises. This seems like an intensely confessional moment in the poem, though it is difficult to tell whether the speaker is confessing that she literally left physical bruises on her sister’s wrist or whether she is simply admitting that she might have damaged her sister in some unstated figurative way. Then again, it is also possible that this “sister” is herself a metaphor for something else.
We know that Glück had an older sister who died before she was born and that Glück has attributed some of her own struggles with mental health to her knowledge of this death. It is tempting, then, to read his stanza figuratively, as deriving from the speaker’s sense of guilt in relation to her sister’s death, even though that death obviously had nothing to do with her. Yet, in the seventh stanza, the speaker urges us not to listen to the “older daughter” because she is so unreliable as a source of truth. This older daughter could be related to Glück’s deceased older sister, but, within the context of the poem, this statement would appear more likely to identify the speaker as this older daughter, which would, presumably, make the sister from the fourth stanza her younger sister, defeating any simple identification of the bruised sister of that stanza with Glück’s deceased older sister. Ultimately, then, the speaker seems to be correct in her assertion that we cannot finally rely on anything she says—including her assertion that we cannot finally rely on anything she says. There is no coming to a final interpretation of this poem, just as there is often no coming to a final resolution of emotional trauma.
The Untrustworthy Speaker
Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken.
I don’t see anything objectively.
I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist.
When I speak passionately,
that’s when I’m least to be trusted.
It’s very sad, really: all my life, I’ve been praised
for my intelligence, my powers of language, of insight.
In the end, they’re wasted—
I never see myself,
standing on the front steps, holding my sister’s hand.
That’s why I can’t account
for the bruises on her arm, where the sleeve ends.
In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous.
People like me, who seem selfless,
we’re the cripples, the liars;
we’re the ones who should be factored out
in the interest of truth.
When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges.
A clear sky, the clouds like white fibers.
Underneath, a little gray house, the azaleas
red and bright pink.
If you want the truth, you have to close yourself
to the older daughter, block her out:
when a living thing is hurt like that,
in its deepest workings,
all function is altered.
That’s why I’m not to be trusted.
Because a wound to the heart
is also a wound to the mind.
Amiri Baraka (1934–2014), “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001)
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Amiri Baraka (originally publishing under the name “LeRoi Jones”) established a strong and diverse reputation in his early career, when he became associated with the Beat Generation for his early poetry, but also established a broader reputation as a playwright (for the important 1964 play Dutchman) and as a scholar (for Blues People: Negro Music in White America, his 1963 study of the development of African American music from slavery to the jazz era). In 1965, he changed his name to Amiri Baraka, partly in response to the assassination of Malcolm X.
From this point, Baraka devoted himself to using his writing and his political activism to work for social justice for all Americans and to help establish a viable cultural identity for himself and for all African Americans. Moving to Harlem, he established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS), an important precursor to the broader Black Arts Movement (BAM), of which he is also recognized as the founder, though that movement had many sources, drawing upon the Nation of Islam, the Black Power movement and the Civil Rights Movement. In this movement, black artists sought to share ideas and techniques in an attempt to create politically engaged work that explored the African American cultural and historical experience in ways that point to a vibrant future.
For the next several decades, Baraka established himself as a radical political activist and respected teacher and scholar, while continuing to write in a variety of genres. Never one to shun controversy, Baraka often generated heated responses to his political opinions, never more so than in his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” written in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center in New York. Amid a wave of outrage at this attack on America, Baraka reminds us in this poem that there is a long history of violence that has been done against the stated ideals of American democracy—and of the Western enlightenment project in general—while wondering why this violence (mostly committed by white people against people of color) didn’t seem to generate the same amount of outrage as the 9/11 bombings.
Baraka in no way seeks to express solidarity with the 9/11 attackers. He is simply attempting to suggest that we should use this moment, not to generate xenophobic animosity toward Arabs and other perceived enemies, but to re-examine our own past, recognizing the real enemies of American democracy and working to defeat those enemies by making American democracy stronger and better. Thus, twenty years later, amid a wave of attacks on American democracy and mounting activity by domestic terrorists, Baraka’s poem might be more relevant than ever.
This poem triggered a firestorm of criticism, not so much because it points to well-documented atrocities of the past as because it also draws upon conspiracy theories that were already in circulation in the wake of the bombing. Indeed, conspiracy theories surrounding the bombing persist today, in our age of conspiracy theory. (One of many conspiracy theories embraced by QAnon is that the bombings were actually planned and carried out by the American “deep state,” a theory that is clearly absurd and unfounded, based on no evidence whatsoever.) One could argue that the presence of conspiracy theories (such as that the bombings were carried out by Israel in order to discredit Arabs, or that they were even part of a conspiratorial joint plan on the part of the American and Israeli governments) weakens this poem, though we should remember that it is a poem, and not a historical document. In addition, one can, in retrospect, see the poem as a critique of conspiracy theories, pointing to the fact that many people seem much more interested in pursuing these false narratives than in learning the real truth of history.
One of the most provocative poems in all of American literature, “Somebody Blew Up America” is actually a positive vision of the potential of America to be better if we will only come to grips with the mistakes of the past—a project we have also seen in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. It is also, not surprisingly given Baraka’s interest in music, something of a performance piece that works best when read by a talented performer accompanied by music. You can see Baraka himself reading the poem here:
Somebody Blew Up America
They say it’s some terrorist, some barbaric Arab in Afghanistan
It wasn’t our American terrorists
It wasn’t the Klan or the skinheads
Or the them that blows up nigger churches
Or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn’t Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring
Baraka ends his first stanza, which reminds us of the long legacy of racist violence against African Americans, with a list of names of politicians and public figures whose policies have encouraged racism.
It wasn’t the gonorrhea in costume
The white sheet diseases that have murdered black people
Terrorized reason and sanity
Most of humanity, as they pleases
A reminder of the legacy of the Ku Klux Klan, whose white-sheet-clad members have murdered many African Americans over the years.
They say (who say?)
Who do the saying
Who is them paying
Who tell the lies
Who in disguise
Who had the slaves
Who got the bucks out the Bucks
Who got fat from plantations
Who genocided Indians
Tried to waste the Black nation
Who live on Wall Street, the first plantation?
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa
Who got the tar, who got the feathers
Who had the match, who set the fires
Who killed and hired
Who say they God, and still be the Devil
Who the biggest only
Who the most goodest
Who do Jesus resemble
Baraka often shifts to sarcasm in this poem, reminding us of the false claims made by white people over the years in creating a White Supremacist version of history.
Who created everything
Who the smartest
Who the greatest
Who the richest
Who say you ugly and they the goodlookinest
Who define art
Who define science
Who made the bombs
Who made the guns
Who bought the slaves, who sold them
White people might claim to have produced all the great things in history, but Baraka reminds us that they have, in fact, been responsible for most of the worst things in history.
Who called you them names
Who say Dahmer wasn’t insane
Who? Who? Who?
Who stole Puerto Rico
Who stole the Indies, the Philippines, Manhattan
Australia & The Hebrides
Who forced opium on the Chinese
Baraka here reminds us of the legacy of Western (including American) colonial conquest and exploitation around the world
Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funny
Who locked you up
Who own the papers
Who owned the slave ship
Who run the army
Who the fake president
Who the ruler
Who the banker
Who? Who? Who?
Baraka here refers to the fact that then-president George W. Bush was elected president despite losing the popular vote and despite strong evidence of irregularities in the counting of votes in Florida, a state that would have swung the election to his opponent, Al Gore.
Who own the mine
Who twist your mind
Who got bread
Who need peace
Who you think need war
Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who own the soil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain’t nobody bigger
Who own this city
Who own the air
Who own the water
Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder
and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth
Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime
Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos
Who? Who? Who?
Who own the ocean
Who own the airplanes
Who own the malls
Who own television
Who own radio
Who own what ain’t even known to be owned
Who own the owners that ain’t the real owners
Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws
Who made Bush president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying
Who talk about democracy and be lying
Who the Beast in Revelations
Who know who decide
Jesus get crucified
Who the Devil on the real side
Who got rich from Armenian genocide
Who the biggest terrorist
Who change the bible
Who killed the most people
Who do the most evil
Who don’t worry about survival
Who have the colonies
Who stole the most land
Who rule the world
Who say they good but only do evil
Who the biggest executioner
Who? Who? Who?
Who own the oil
Who want more oil
Who told you what you think that later you find out a lie
Who? Who? Who?
Who found Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
Who pay the CIA,
Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
Who know why the terrorists
Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego
Baraka here refers to conspiracy theories about the 9/11 bombings
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion
Who need fossil fuel when the sun ain’t goin’ nowhere
Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?
Who invaded Grenada
Who made money from apartheid
Who keep the Irish a colony
Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later
More references to British colonialism and to American intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Who killed David Sibeko, Chris Hani,
the same ones who killed Biko, Cabral,
Neruda, Allende, Che Guevara, Sandino,
Baraka here supplies a list of leaders of people of color who have been murdered under suspicious circumstances around the world.
Who killed Kabila, the ones who wasted Lumumba, Mondlane,
Betty Shabazz, Die, Princess Di, Ralph Featherstone,
The list here moves to more people killed under suspicious circumstances, consisting mostly of black leaders, but also including England’s Princess Diana, rumored to have been murdered because of her romantic involvement with an Arab man.
Who locked up Mandela, Dhoruba, Geronimo,
Assata, Mumia, Garvey, Dashiell Hammett, Alphaeus Hutton
Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
Medgar Evers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed
Baraka here lists dissidents and others who have wrongly arrested. He then lists Black Panthers and other black political leaders who were murdered, while also referring to the well-documented (but unsuccessful) attempts of the CIA to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro and to the American intervention in Vietnam.
Who put a price on Lenin’s head
Several attempts (one nearly successful, leading to his early death) were made on the life of early Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. Many believe that Western governments were involved in financing at least some of the attempts. The Americans and British are known to have attempted to undermine the new Soviet government in a variety of ways.
Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Who said “America First”
and ok’d the yellow stars
Baraka here turns to a mention of the German Nazi Holocaust (in which Jews were marked by being forced to wear yellow stars of David) and to the insistence of so many Americans during the 1930s to put “America first” and not to worry about what was going on in Europe.
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced,
tortured, assassinated, vanished
Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were radical German political leaders who were executed for their political beliefs in 1919; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were left-leaning American Jews who were executed for their political beliefs in 1953.
Who got rich from Algeria, Libya, Haiti,
Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Kuwait, Lebanon,
Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine,
Haiti joins a list of Middle Eastern and North African nations that have been exploited by Western corporations, often making huge profits from oil and other sources, at the expense of the local populations.
Who cut off peoples hands in the Congo
Who invented Aids
Who put the germs
In the Indians’ blankets
Who thought up “The Trail of Tears”
Here Baraka links the mistreatment of Native Americans to the colonial abuse of the people of Africa.
Who blew up the Maine
& started the Spanish American War
Who got Sharon back in Power
Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo,
Chiang kai Chek
Baraka here provides a reminder of the American provocation that triggered the Spanish-American war, following with a list of right-wing world leaders put or kept in power with the complicity of the United States.
Who decided Affirmative Action had to go
Reconstruction, The New Deal,
The New Frontier, The Great Society,
References ongoing conservative attempts to undo any and all progressive policies enacted in modern America.
Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza
Who pay Connelly to be a wooden negro
Who give Genius Awards to Homo Locus
Here, Baraka gets more contemporary with a reference to black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, often accused of being an “Uncle Tom” for his extreme conservative views. He then follows with mentions of other black conservatives, including General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice (who both served in the Bush Administration), as well as California politician Ward Connerly (“Connelly”).
Who overthrew Nkrumah, Bishop,
Who poison Robeson,
who try to put DuBois in Jail
Who frame Rap Jamil al Amin, Who frame the Rosenbergs,
The Scottsboro Boys,
The Hollywood Ten
Another list of the victims of white hegemony, including Kwame Nkrumah (the president of Ghana, ousted in a coup he believed was supported by the CIA) and Maurice Bishop (Grenadian leader murdered as part of a coup in which the CIA might again have been involved). He then mentions African American singer, actor, and intellectual Paul Robeson (driven from the U.S. by racist discrimination) and prominent African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois (often threatened with legal persecution), followed by a list of individuals and groups who were wrongly prosecuted by the American legal system. “Rap Jamil al Amin” is radical black activist H. Rap Brown, who later changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, still in prison today for the fatal shooting of two Fulton County, Georgia, sheriff’s deputies in 2000, a shooting for which he was convicted despite conflicting evidence and despite the fact that another man confessed to the crime. Marcus Garvey was a radical Jamaican leader who was imprisoned in the U.S. in the 1920s; the Scottsboro Boys were a group of African American boys wrongly arrested for the rape of a white woman in the 1930s. The Hollywood Ten were a group of left-leaning directors, producers, and screenwriters imprisoned in the 1950s because of their political beliefs.
Who set the Reichstag Fire
The Reichstag Fire (February 1933) was a key event in the rise to power of the German Nazis. Evidence indicates that burning of this building, home of the German parliament in Berlin, was carried out by the Nazis themselves. However, Hitler blamed the burning on German communists, using this claim as an excuse to seize greater power and to suppress the German Communist Party, the main force in Germany that opposed Hitler and the Nazis.
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Baraka here addresses persistent rumors that high officials in both the United States and Israel (“Sharon” is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was involved in a number of controversies in the Middle East, earning him the nickname “The Butcher of Beirut.”) On the date of the 9/11 bombings, he was in Israel. He is used here as a metonymic stand-in for Israel as a whole, in an apparent reference to the fact that relatively few Jewish workers were killed in the bombing, which triggered rumors that they had been tipped off. There is no evidence to support those rumors, and this stanza was the one that triggered the most controversy, bringing charges of anti-semitism.
Who? Who? Who?
Explosion of Owl the newspaper say
The devil face cd be seen
Baraka refers to contemporary reports that a devil’s face could be seen in the smoke emanating from the World Trade Center bombing.
Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is
Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and national
oppression and terror violence, and hunger and poverty.
Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful
Who you know ever
But everybody seen
Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
A string of almost surreal images evokes the chaos and confusion that occurred in the wake of the 9/11 bombings. The “Owl” imagery is a bit obscure, though it certainly seems related to the frequent repetition of the insistent word “who” (which sounds like the call made by an owl) throughout the poem. Some have argued that it might even be a subtle reference to Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” to which this poem has sometimes been compared.
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO who who
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!
Maggie Smith (1977– ), “Good Bones” (2016)
Born in Columbus, Ohio, and educated at Ohio Wesleyan University and the Ohio State University, Maggie Smith is a well-known poet who has published several volumes of her own writing, including Lamp of the Body (2005), The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015), Good Bones (2017), and Goldenrod (2021). Smith’s poems and essays are widely published and anthologized, appearing in such venues as Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. Her essay collection Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change (2020) became a national bestseller, partly due to the fact that she was by this time well known because her 2016 poem “Good Bones,” which became the title poem of her 2017 collection, had gone viral internationally on social media and been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Public Radio International called it “the official poem of 2016” for its ability to capture the spirit of that difficult year, though it once again began to make the rounds of social media in 2020 in response to the hardships of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Originally published in the poetry journal Waxwing,“Good Bones” went viral on social media in the wake of the “Pulse” nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016. It is an excellent example of the ability of poetry to respond to current events and to keep up with changing times, adapting to new circumstances and new media. Because of its viral spread on social media, “Good Bones” is no doubt one of the most widely read poems of the twenty-first century. This simple, straightforward poem has spoken directly to viewers all over the world during these last few difficult years, capturing is it does the common experience of parents who wish to shield their innocent children from the harsh realities of the world, hoping to instill in them hope that the world can still be a good place in which to live if we just take the appropriate actions to correct some of the problems with which it is currently afflicted. Thus, while acknowledging the ills of the world, the poem seems not only optimistic but downright utopian, imagining the possibility of a better world to come for the speaker’s children.
In the poem’s central conceit, Smith’s speaker compares the world to a run-down house that needs lots of work but is still structurally sound (with “good bones,” as we say) and able to be renovated into a very fine home. The speaker thus envisions herself as a metaphorical realtor, tasked with selling the potential for this better world to clients who are her children. She only hopes they will accept the challenge to work to improve the world they have inherited. Most readers indeed seem to have taken the poem in this optimistic way, though there is a discernible hesitation in the final lines, suggesting that a good realtor would try to sell the fix-up potential of even the worst of houses. Not all sales pitches, as we know, are entirely honest, and one gets the impression that the speaker in this poem might not entirely believe her own sales pitch.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Bob Dylan (1941– ), “I Contain Multitudes” (2020)
When noted folk/rock singer/songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, the award seemed to verify what had long been felt by many: that he was one of the greatest and most important poets of his generation. Many of Dylan’s songs over a public career that now spans more than sixty years have been among the most important of their time. His song “Like a Rolling Stone,” for example, was named by Rolling Stone magazine (no relation to the song) in both 2004 and 2011 as the greatest song of all time.
Dylan’s lyrics have long been recognized for their cleverness, their wittiness, and their entertainment value, while at the same time addressing extremely important issues on both a personal and a political level. As a young singer/songwriter in the 1960s, he became a key voice of the countercultural movements of that decade. Stephen Metcalf, writing in Slate magazine, describes Dylan’s importance to the 1960s “It was Dylan, more than anyone, who took Truth from out of the Victorian attic and put it into rock ’n’ roll; put it on the AM radio. More than any individual, I think, he pulled the American mainstream away from its near absolute commitment to a style of middlebrow-po-faced-imperial-parochial-righteousness that helped drag us, among other places, into Vietnam.”
Of course, one thing remarkable about Dylan is his longevity, as his career has continued decade after decade, through a number of reinventions of his personal and professional style. Indeed, “Bob Dylan” himself was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, reportedly taking his adopted last name from poet Dylan Thomas. In his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, his most critically acclaimed album of the twenty-first century, Dylan seems to have moved in still another new direction, perhaps taking seriously his role as Nobel laureate and moving in a more self-consciously literary direction, while at the same time engaging in a serious dialogue with American history of the past sixty years of his career. Yet he also maintains his sense of humor, as in the track “My Own Version of You,” which riffs, in a mode of black humor, on the Frankenstein narrative, as the singer envisions moving about town collecting miscellaneous body parts in order to build an ideal version of his beloved.
In “I Contain Multitudes,” the first track on this album, Dylan engages in a direct dialogue with one of his most important poetic predecessors, Walt Whitman, who famously declared his own multiple nature (as well as the multiple nature of America as a nation), when he declared, in his poem “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
In the course of this song, Dylan also compares himself with such literary figures as Edgar Allan Poe and the British poet/painter William Blake (Dylan himself has also done a number of paintings), not to mention such diverse figures as Jewish victim of the Holocaust Anne Frank, the movie hero Indiana Jones, and the British rock group The Rolling Stones. Some of the comparisons are more serious than others, of course, just as Dylan’s depiction of himself in various guises in the song partly acknowledges and partly lampoons his tendency to take on different styles and identities in the course of his long and varied life and career. He then ends the song with a reference to two major figures from classical music, suggesting the variety of his own musical tastes (and his own musical styles).
As with all songs, “I Contain Multitudes” can be fully experienced only in performance. You can hear Dylan’s performance here:
I Contain Multitudes
Today and tomorrow and yesterday too
The flowers are dying like all things do
Follow me close—I’m going to Bally-Na-Lee
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me
I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds . . . I contain multitudes
Gotta tell tale heart like Mr. Poe
Got skeletons in the walls of people you know
I’ll drink to the truth of things that we said
I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed
I paint landscapes—I paint nudes . . . I contain multitudes
A red Cadillac and a black moustache
Rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash
Tell me what’s next—what shall we do
Half my soul baby belongs to you
I rollick and I frolic with all the young dudes . . . I contain multitudes
I’m just like Anne Frank—like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones
I go right to the edge—I go right to the end
I go right where all things lost—are made good again
I sing the songs of experience like William Blake
I have no apologies to make
Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time
I live on the boulevard of crime
I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods . . . I contain multitudes
Pink pedal pushers and red blue jeans
All the pretty maids and all the old queens
All the old queens from all my past lives
I carry four pistols and two large knives
I’m a man of contradictions and a man of many moods . . . I contain multitudes
Greedy old wolf—I’ll show you my heart
But not all of it—only the hateful part
I’ll sell you down the river—I’ll put a price on your head
What more can I tell ya—I sleep with life and death in the same bed
Get lost Madam—get up off my knee
Keep your mouth away from me
I’ll keep the path open—the path in my mind
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind
I play Beethoven sonatas Chopin’s preludes . . . I contain multitudes
 Refers to Ballinalee, a remote village in Ireland. While it is not entirely clear why Dylan chose to reference this village, it is a picturesque place that has some poetic connections. It was, for example, featured in Antoine Ó Raifteiri’s poem “The Lass From Bally-na-Lee.” The lyrics to “I Contain Multitudes” use Ó Raifteiri’s spelling of the name of the town, suggesting a direct connection to this poem.