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John Isbell 08-20-2019 01:45 AM

Love Sick
Love Sick

I’m walking, says the singer, with a voice
come welling up through the black soil, as if
there were no God, as if the sky at night
saw only atoms burning. All the great

beliefs have ebbed. On the guitar, a chord
nags at my brain. The singer says his feet
are so tired. He’s been singing for a good
few decades, there is nothing to be told

that’s not been told before. What kind of love,
I ask, survives this holocaust? The clouds
are weeping
. Yet the heart goes out, I can’t
arrest that leap. This kind of love – he sings –

I’m sick of it. And that is how the sky
sits on the world, how ocean laps the shore.
The young don’t get it. But the old, do they
then need reminding of the way the night

succeeds the day? Of how things fall apart,
till just the heart is left? Along the bare
horizon goes Bob Dylan. Been laid low
so many times.
Now, he is on his feet.

John Isbell 08-20-2019 01:53 AM

Dylan tends to keep his studio versions off Youtube. Here's a contemporary live version of the song:


Daniel Kemper 08-20-2019 05:27 AM

My first impression is that this is a rich, roaming poem that names some deeply moving facts of life with some unanticipated turns, like being sick of love. I'm always iffy about unrhymed verse, but that's certainly idiosyncratic. I have a thought to play with, but shouldn't be viewed as a necessary action. I wonder if you could pull Dylan entirely out of this-- I mean in a sense you can't, but the literal naming of him. Just say the expressions about the road, the love, the life and not name that Dylan sings of them. Just a question towards an experiment. It really wouldn't be a revision of this poem, which stands with many strengths, so much as a creation of another.

One nit- again maybe just me: "laid low before. Now, hes on his two feet. "

I think I'd remove the word "two" though I get the instinct that might be quoting him directly for effect. I realize it would leave the line one syllable short, but I think in spoken effect, "Now" acts as an entire metrical foot on its own . Just a thought.

John Isbell 08-20-2019 06:10 AM

Hi Daniel,

Thank you for your comments - I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this piece.
I'm pondering your interesting idea of removing Dylan from the poem, at least by name. I do have reams of ekphrastic poetry, and a perennial question is how much of the original art's existence to leave on the page, so to speak, and how much to push the poem to take independent flight. Striking the right balance is a challenge. Way back when, i used to quote lyrics far more extensively, in my innocence. That prevents a poem from coming alive, i now believe.
Coincidentally, I added the word "two" to the last line directly before posting. I'd had ""he is on his feet," and felt that was a bit flat. But maybe two has to come out again. Thanks for the spur.


I'm trying an experiment - I've changed two mentions of Bob Dylan for the phrase "the singer," and kept one. I also restored the original ending. Thanks Daniel.

Matt Q 08-20-2019 06:10 AM

Hi John,

I like the sky and sea similes, and the sense of inevitability that brings with it. Also, I like that "do the old need reminding ... " is a question, rather than a statement, which moves us away from the somewhat lecturing style that I hear earlier parts of the poem (see below). I like the suggestion that the song will either be heard by those who don't understand, or those who likely don't need to be told. That the song is, in a sense, pointless or unnecessary, seems to tie in well with the general sense of inevitability and impotence: the heart goes out anyway. I also liked the line "Of how things fall apart, / till just the heart is left", and the "bare horizon".

So here's my main nit. Who's "we", here? In this poem it very much reads like "we/our" includes the reader and speaks on their (our, my) behalf. A danger with speaking on behalf of the reader is that the reader may not share your views and thoughts and may not like being told what they think, and this can be a barrier to entering your poem. Whereas, if you don't speak on the reader's behalf you're far less likely to encounter this resistance.

Another consequence of the "we" is that it makes the N sound far more like he's lecturing, speaking from a position of all-encompassing knowledge, rather than illuminating or telling us something we don't know about his own experience -- about which I'm far happier to cede his expertise.

So, what happens if you put this in the first person? Have the N me that this song nags at his brain, but make no presumptions about my own brain? Similarly, I don't think I've ever asked what kind of love survives the holocaust. I'm interested to learn that the N has, though.

Also, with "our brain", singular, it seems rather like you're adopting the "royal we". Or it's a hive mind kind of thing ...

Having now read the song lyrics, I can see how a/the holocaust might connect with from "dead streets". (To me, the dead streets and the clouds kind of suggest a nuclear holocaust). I wonder if it's best not to give it a definite article, though. I assume you don't want "the Holocaust" -- the genocide of Jews by the Nazis -- or maybe you do? In which case, it's a proper noun and a capital letter is needed (but I think that's a reference that could easily overwhelm the poem). But if not, maybe go with "a holocaust" -- or "this holocaust"?

A point on the metre, and something I've found myself noticing a fair bit in your poems. "And that is how the sky" could be "And that's how the sky". Similarly "He has been / laid low before", could be "He's been laid low before". For me, this avoidance of contraction often gives your sentences a slightly padded and overly monosyllabic feel, especially where the contracted phrasing would sound more natural, idiomatic. Now, maybe that's a stylistic choice, but then we also get "we can’t / arrest that leap" rather than "we cannot... ", and "he's on his two feet", and not "he is on ...". I'm not saying that phrases should always be contracted, or that one can't use both contracted and uncontracted in the same poem for effect, it's just here the choices seem fairly arbitrary and metrically driven.



John Isbell 08-20-2019 06:35 AM

Hi Matt,

Thank you for your excellent comments. I've immediately moved the poem to the first person, particularly since I certainly don't want to lecture or hector the reader, or assume shared experience when it's not a given - which is kind of the song's, and the poem's, point.
I'm glad you seem to like the broad sweep of things here. I think the song is tremendous. I spent years having goes at writing poems on Dylan, who is my favorite singer, and visibly failing, before I got this. He always seemed too big and close for me to get a handle on him.
I did intend the Holocaust reference. Adorno said that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and how to write a poem after that event is I think a worthwhile question to ask. I also think it matters to Dylan's art. I've put the word in lowercase in part to avoid overdetermining the poem and in part to avoid a soapbox. Any life is in a sense a holocaust, a burnt offering, and we subsist at the end of it, or we do not. Things we thought would last, do not. I'm reluctant to shift to "this holocaust," but it may be that is the necessary word here in the end. I am undecided.
Finally, you're quite right about my use of contraction. It's a little tidier now, but the matter deserves sustained thought from me as a writer.


Update: this holocaust it is. Thank you.

Erik Olson 08-21-2019 01:44 AM


I fancy this sinuous quilt of a poem, if you will, has much to appreciate.

To list some aspects that I especially commend: The metaphor of ebbed in ‘all the great / beliefs have ebbed’; the colorful and apt verb-choice of ‘nags’; the evocative image of a guitar chord that ‘nags at my brain’; and the images of ‘the heart goes out’ as well as ‘the sky sits on the world’ and ‘ocean laps the shore.’

What gave me pause, to one degree or another, are the following: Just a typographical thing first.
.................................................. ...The clouds
are weeping
. Yet the heart goes out, I can’t
I could not tell why—‘The clouds / are weeping’—should be italicized but not—‘Yet the heart goes out…’—seeing as the second locution seems to be but a natural continuation of the first. I suppose the first is a lyric, and this I should know because Bob Dylan? Even so, I wish the distinction were clearer somehow. Is Yet the heart... the narrator finishing his thought for him? and using I this time for himself? What modifies the singer and what the narrator seem interchangeable, even at this juncture arbitrary dare I say, without much distinction between the two. I guess I have to think this over some more.

Arrest that leap throws me, I confess. I wish the action itself of arresting a leap were easier to imagine; also what is the leap? The heart going out then, is that the leap you cannot arrest?

I was unsure about the categorical statement ‘the young don’t get it’; mostly because no reason as to why is even hinted, but it seems taken for granted, making it harder to acquiesce to the speaker's authority I think.

All in all, I enjoyed this poem. I reckon there is a lot here with which to work that is solid and effective. To say the least.



Andrew Frisardi 08-22-2019 10:27 AM

I really like this one, John. It's in your signature conversational style, but more pared down to the essentials than is often the case. I haven't read the comments and I still have to read the poem more, but my sense is that some tightening here and there will get this one into finished shape fairly easily. My one suggestion at this point is to do away with the quatrains. They seem superimposed on the poem's flow. I don't think you need any breaks at all, or at most a "verse paragraph" break or two.

I'll be back, maybe with further thoughts.


John Isbell 08-22-2019 04:52 PM

Hi Erik, hi Andrew,

And thank you for your thoughts. I'm also glad you both seem to have quite enjoyed this piece.
Erik: I like your word sinuous. I use italics in various poems to indicate direct quotation, but as you note, that can easily be unclear for readers. And yes, I do tend to bat the ball back and forth between the words I quote and my reactions to them. I'm not sure there's an easy fix; I personally am reluctant to put all quotes in quotation marks, i find italics less intrusive. Maybe I'm mistaken. You're right, the divide can seem arbitrary to a reader. In arrest, I am looking to use the word in its meaning of stop, which I think (I'm away from my OED) will be listed as the primary meaning there, as in cardiac arrest. And lastly, I agree, The young don't get it seems categorical and perhaps unearned. Again, i don't see an easy fix; it's just how the line came to me, as i make certain claims about the process of ageing.
Andrew: I will look closely at your suggestion of removing the quatrains. i tend to default into stanzaic form in my free verse, and as you note, paragraph breaks may be less intrusive and carry more weight. Yes, I do seem to have a tone, and this is no exception.

Thank you both,

HI Andrew, I just tried removing the quatrains and I find I do like them there. Those enjambments across the stanza break provide a sort of weariness, of endless stop and start, that I find fits with the overarching theme of the poem. So that's where I'm at now.

Matt Q 08-22-2019 06:17 PM

Hi John,

I'm back to wonder about "says the singer" in S1L1 and "the singer says" in S2L3. I guess because he's singing not saying. And later you have "he sings", which then seems inconsistent.

Obviously "sings the singer" and "the singer sings" don't work. But if you want Dylan's name out of it to begin with, I'm wondering if there are alternatives that use "sing" as a verb, but a different way to refer to Dylan without naming him? Or a verb to replace "sing" so you can use "singer". I'm not sure what though. "a man is singing"?, "the singer cries out"? I'm not saying either of those are good mind.

In the penultimate line, I also wondered if there's a wording that gives a stronger enjambment that "been". Maybe something like ...?

.................................Along the bare
horizon goes Bob Dylan. Been laid low
so many times. Now he is on his feet.


so many times, but now he's on his feet.

I dunno. The diction of "been laid low" is slightly different from the narrator's (though the N does us "with a voice come up from ..."), but kind of Dylanesque, maybe?



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