Did Bob Dylan deserve to win the Nobel Prize in Literature?
Do You Love Your Monkey or Do You Love Me?: An Incomplete Personal History of Calling Songwriters “Poets”
When I was in high school, my overworked English teacher Mrs. Jones decided the best way to introduce our group of apathetic, jean-jacketed sixteen-year-olds to poetry was through song lyrics. One Monday, she told the twenty-three faces yawning in her direction that we had the opportunity to transcribe the lyrics of our favorite song from the liner notes of an LP (it was 1988) and submit them to her for consideration to be part of our class discussion about poetry. She would then decide which of the submitted lyrics would be the most “apropos” to use in our class conversation.
The real lesson, as she explained it, was something like “using song lyrics to discover the sophisticated uses for metaphor and rhyme, which are the foundations of poetry.” She kept going on about the beauty of words and how language works just like music if music were made out of letters, and when she finally finished with blah blah blah metaphor blah blah blah arti> blah “you can bring in whatever lyrics you want,” we were no longer yawning and slouching. We were straight up and down in our desks, and we were all about English class.
The next day, a classmate with a large Adam’s apple and a mullet presented Mrs. Jones with a mimeograph of the lyrics from the Run DMC and Aerosmith partnership, “Walk This Way.” “It’s rock and rap,” he said. Another longhair brought in Black Sabbath’s “Crazy Train” while offering the hand-written lyrics in his right hand and presenting his left fist to the teacher so she could see that “OZZY” was printed in ballpoint pen on his knuckles. My backcourt mate on the basketball team typed up Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” Three of us put up power fists while he turned it in.
The girl I had a crush on handed in Guy’s “Groove Me”—which was the same song I brought in—and I almost lost my mind imagining our future peg-legged, New Jack romance. “I brought that song, too,” I told her. “You want to come over after school and listen to the album?” She didn’t even turn her gold bangle earrings and beauty mark in my direction, ignoring me the same way she ignored me for the next two years because she wanted “a man with prospects.”
Some dude whose name I don’t remember brought in GN’R’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and he might have been the most in tune with Mrs. Jones’s agenda of us all. The lyrics aren’t good, but they are influential thanks to the combination of demonstrative language and the music behind it. “Where do we go? Where do we go now?” Axl Rose growls like he is the line of demarcation between the parents and children at the tail end of the Reagan era. In the end, the teacher chose George Michael’s song “Monkey” from his multi-platinum album Faith. The chorus of the song goes:
Why can’t you do it?
Why can’t you set your monkey free?
Always giving into it
Do you love your monkey or do you love me?
Mrs. Jones explained that this was a metaphor for obsessions and the rhyme of “free” and “me” was really a subliminal message that recast the great Funkadelic credo, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” Of course she couldn’t say “ass” in a room full of tenth graders and probably never listened to Funkadelic. And of course, the whole class was about to crack up because in suburban Indianapolis slang, the word “monkey” was a nom de guerre for either sex or sexual parts. We couldn’t decide which because we had no direct knowledge of either yet.
Still, Mrs. Jones was on to something. The extended metaphor of George Michael’s lyrics, the whole thing about loving your monkey more than X, resonated in our knuckled heads. Whether you’re Bubbles the Chimp or a guy in the GN’R T-shirt holding out the bouquet of flowers to the turned back of a woman, you need freedom and permission and obsession to be in love.
Which brings me to Bob Dylan. Had my tenth grade class somehow transported back to 1965 and our newly striped and bell bottomed, big heel wearing teacher (who would have told us to call her “Roberta” instead of “Mrs. Jones”) asked us to bring in song lyrics, someone would have come in with a transcription of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “This is real poetry” they would say like so many others have said about Dylan’s work. And they would have been right as long as what constitutes poetry is, to quote The Dude, “just like, your opinion, man.”
However we try to classify it—poetry, song, both, or neither— “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a revelation, as is all of the songwriting on Bringing It All Back Home. And to bolster the person advocating for Dylan as poet, the song doesn’t even have a chorus. It has a refrain like a poem: “Look out kid” followed by some warning about what’s to come. Just like a poet, Dylan communicates, appraises, and worries with the best of them.
But Dylan is not a poet any more than George Michael is a poet. Bob Dylan is a wordsmith with gorgeous backing rhythms, and he often uses the same tools we poets use. There is a reason teachers use his lyrics in the classroom. In the conversation of “please bring your favorite song lyrics to class so we can talk about poetry,” Dylan certainly has a seat at the long table. Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, and Nina Simone are maybe closer to the head in my arrangement, but he is definitely there.
It is the job of the poet to weave music out of words and imagined rhythms. If you take the music away and make those drum snares imaginary, most of Dylan’s language folds up under its own weight. It’s not a bad thing that he’s not a poet in the truest sense. It’s safe to say that Bob Dylan made more money yesterday sitting in his slippers and reading the paper than all of the poets combined made reciting their poems in coffee shops, classrooms, and protests in the last seven years.
So when I heard Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel in Literature, my first thought wasn’t of him or the jilted poetry smiths in their high back chairs all over the world wanting to break into blossom. It was of exhausted Mrs. Jones and her English lesson. It feels like the Nobel committee had its own Monday, 8 a.m. moment and was trying to convince a world full of frustrated and pinch-faced consumers—some of whom really want it to be 1965 again—that, hey, it is still 1965 as far as our Nobel committee is concerned. At least we can show some love to Bob Dylan and pretend things haven’t gone so sideways in the last fifty years that we ended up with a game show host as president. Besides, if we call Bob Dylan a poet, maybe poetry will still matter to those who aren’t inclined to pick up a book. Or maybe the committee was just too lazy to learn about some of the brilliant poets (check into Yusef Komunyakaa please, committee) whose work transcends the page in our midst. The ones who don’t need backup singers and tambourines to make the audience understand the metaphor.
If Bob Dylan’s a Writer, Who’s This Guy Shakespeare?
First question to the house: What’s the use of prizes? I know what the Academy Awards are about: they’re Hollywood publicizing itself. The same can pretty much be said of any other prize competition; at best it’s a harmless parlor game; more often it’s simply a form of politicking or self-promotion; sometimes it’s a joke and occasionally a menace. In giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, the Swedish Academy has tipped into the third category, where it’s often been before, and entered the fourth. Literature is in bad enough trouble in the age of Twitter. It doesn’t need to be stood completely on its head by the Scandinavian boneheads.
First, let’s dispense with the Nobels themselves. The idea of, say, giving a Most Valuable Player award in baseball has at least the merit of a statistical foundation. There is no way to discriminate in literature, or the arts generally, except by taste, and the consensus that taste occasionally reaches about relative degrees of merit. But taste, even at its most cultivated, has a notoriously labile relationship to value, and the best any award—or any canon—can represent is the snapshot of a particular present.
By that standard, the Swedish camera has veered in some very odd directions. Among the recipients of the Nobel in Literature have been such stellar names as Sully Prudhomme, Verner von Heidenstam, Karl Anton Gjellerup, and Henrik Pontoppidan, not to mention more recent notables including the court jester Dario Fo or the unreadable Elfriede Jelinek. Among the Academy’s omissions: Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Vladimir Nabokov. That’s virtually a Who’s Who of twentieth-century Western literature, at least as most informed judgment would define it, assuming such a list to be useful.
It’s one thing to overlook a genius and choose a duffer, however, and another to make a selection that questions the nature, values, and boundaries of literature itself. Of course, the avant-garde of the past century and a half has been precisely about testing such boundaries in all the arts. But literature is irreducibly tied to language and the meanings it can generate, and those meanings in turn to the force, elegance, and novelty by which they are expressed. Here is a not unrepresentative sample of Bob Dylan, from “Bringing It All Back Home”: When preachers preach of evil fates Teachers teach that knowledge waits Disillusioned words like bullets bark One hardly knows where to begin with language of such flatness, banality, and subliteracy; it destroys all possibility of meaning. Really, Bob? Words become “disillusioned,” which makes of them “bullets” that somehow “bark”? Maybe what you’re trying to say is that words that have become expressively empty—you know, like the clichés you’re so fond of using—lend themselves to abuse as propaganda, which impose themselves on us as a dull, imperative repetition, like dogs barking? Oh, but I forgot, it’s the “bullets” they’ve become that somehow bark. . . . These words, in this arrangement, do not express but preclude meaning, and the labor of trying to induce meaning into them is a futile business, as anyone who’s ever tried to correct a really bad student paper knows.
Ah, but these are, after all, song lyrics, not meant to be dissected in themselves but experienced in the expressive whole of music and vocalization. This was precisely the argument made by the Swedish Academy, invoking the ghost of—God save the mark—Homer. We don’t know how Homer sang, but we do know what he sang, and, sorry, the sow’s ear of Dylan’s lyrics isn’t turned into a silk purse by a rasping voice and mediocre strumming.
I know there are critics, such as Christopher Ricks, who profess to find arcane virtues in Dylan worthy of comparison with Shelley and Yeats (and may their ghosts rest). There’s no accounting, after all, for at least some taste. I know, too, that there have been writers, perennially disappointed at the Nobel altar, who have rushed to praise the Academy’s choice as bold and refreshing; but then, we have also been witnessing the spectacle of Republican bigwigs making their pilgrimage to Trump Tower after denouncing its owner as a demagogic fraud.
The issue, then, isn’t Bob Dylan’s worthiness for recognition as a literary figure, a proposition I find ridiculous to entertain. It’s the power of self-anointed nonentities in a remote corner of the republic of letters, none with a reputation of his or her own, to set themselves up as a supreme court of literary value. We’ve humored them long enough. The best response we can make to their annual charade, for as long as it continues, is to ignore it. Dylan himself, to his credit, has essentially done this. It’s one thing, anyway, to praise.
Stuck Inside of Nobel with the Memphis Blues Again
My mother doesn’t read much, but she listens to Bob Dylan.
She got Dylan from her older brother, who worked on cars. She gave Dylan to my father, the heady, stoned young man who loved Chaucer and Tom Robbins and Hendrix. That my upbringing would be steeped in Dylanology was never a question.
When I was ten, Mama—who’s never known which books to buy me—took me to my first Dylan show in a small arena in Terre Haute, Indiana. Since then we’ve seen Bob in once-grand theaters, college auditoriums, and three times at a Triple-A ballpark in East St. Louis. Mama is a woman dug deep in the day-to-day, not one for too much solitude or contemplation. Yet I’ve watched her sway in reverie to Dylan, mouthing lines like “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drum . . .”
Now tell me that’s not American literature.
As a music critic and writer, I meet people from both industries. The distance between these spheres can seem vast—writers talk more and drink harder, musicians look better in leather and dirty hair—but not for lack of mutual interest. Many musicians idolize writers, and most writers wish they were musicians (just duck into any karaoke room near AWP). Yet when Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, many writers reacted with indignation. I get it. If the Nobel honoree was determined by the artist’s contributions to literature today, the prize should have gone to someone like Zadie Smith, for example. Claudia Rankine. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Personally, I would vote for a collective Nobel awarded to Beyoncé and all the young poets writing about her, because that would signal that the committee recognizes the collaborative, pluralistic world we’re moving toward. There are a hundred others who aren’t cis-male, heterosexual septuagenarians who spent the last two decades tinkering with the so-called Great American Songbook and performing like lounge lizards in Night Vale.
There’s no arguing that Dylan’s influence is everywhere in modern literature. He did what they say he did: “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But Dylan shouldn’t have won the 2016 Nobel for going electric. Nor for his character-driven polemics that energized white allies during the ’60s Civil Rights movement. Nor for his jumbled literary references, nor his formal and thematic innovating of Homer and Ovid. The only reason I’m cool with Dylan as Nobel Laureate is because he continues to disrupt his own legacy in pursuit of the work.
Dylan has been on the road non-stop for almost thirty years, doggedly reinventing his songs on stage. In the 1980s, he adopted an “odd-numeric value system” to re-enter and re-create his songs. In Chronicles: Volume One, he described the approach: “With any type of imagination you can hit notes at intervals and between backbeats, creating counterpoint lines. . . . The listener would recognize and feel the dynamics immediately. Things could explode or retreat back at any time and there would be no way to predict the consciousness of any song.” Nowadays, if he plays an old hit, he still changes the tempo, instrumentation, vocal phrasing, even lyrics. No matter how precious certain lines or recordings are to the listener, Dylan takes them apart. It’s not to be contrary—well, not just that—but destruction as a means of creation. His songs may be monuments, but the man has never allowed himself to be.
Once I interviewed the young British folk singer and actor Johnny Flynn for the Village Voice about the time he met his idol. “I looked up, and there was Bob Dylan coming toward me, in a wooly hat and long gloves,” Flynn said. “Actually, I bowed a bit to him as if he were a Japanese sensei. It was some kind of initiation, a rite of passage.”
That’s how most stories about unexpected encounters with Dylan go: He appears, looking bedraggled and asking if you’ve got a car in Indiana or if your house is for sale in Jersey. He deals in irony, subverts a dark lyric with a melodic uplift, and dismantles expectation. Dylan is less a sensei, as Flynn put it, than a fellow student, committed to exploration of his own wild hairs. As New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote, “Stubborn persistence is his main characteristic: although he has often vanished . . . he never fails to trudge back with some new twist on his obsessions.”
If poetry is found in how form relates to content, lasting literature is found in how audience relates to the work. When reviewing a show, I often watch the crowd. I’m not interested in whether the artist fits the pedestal but in how the music exists in the world, the relationships that listeners forge with the art. For example, the question of whether Dylan qualifies to be Nobel Laureate doesn’t matter to Mama. (To hear him tell it, it doesn’t matter much to Dylan either.)
Last summer at Red Rocks, I listened as Dylan gravel-crooned his way through a pedal-steel-infused Frank Sinatra cover. Then he swung into a spoken-word ramble over a laid-back, jazzy bed—which we eventually realized was “Tangled Up in Blue.” Fans got to their feet, and the original Blood on the Tracks tune was playing in my head, even as Dylan rasp-rapped Taaangled UPinbluuue—a palimpsest of song and histories—and damned if I didn’t hear something new.
As artists, readers, and citizens, we could take a cue from Dylan’s stubbornness. His intrepidness in meeting America on the ground, in its Triple-A ballparks and graveyards. His dedication to moving forward, his resistance to sliding into the tyranny of self-parody.
As a writer, I aim for essays that launch like Springsteen songs. I hope to channel Beyoncé’s fierce control and expansion of her craft. I dream of writing an epiphanic moment that breaks open like Merry Clayton’s voice in “Gimme Shelter.” Most of all, I wish for the courage to deconstruct my own work, these materials we’re given, the way that Dylan does. Let’s not constantly question whether our work is worthy of accolades or even rates as literature—let us be too damned busy making, sharing, and listening.
Should the pop singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, as great and influential as he is, have won the Nobel Prize for Literature? The question makes me uneasy. Say no and I suddenly see myself as some cultural conservative, which would put me on the wrong side of history. I’d find myself with Stephen Metcalf of Slate in the awkward position of having to defend the antiquated Modernist dogma that text, to be pure and true, must first be unadulterated by music or anything else. I’d have to endorse an archly problematic high/low cultural divide like the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley, who blames lowbrow thinking for the Nobel pick as well as the Trump phenomenon. Bound to fixed definitions of what art used to be, I’d face the unhappy prospect of having to marry the past rather than flirt with ever-evolving conceptions of art, which, as history shows, can be anything, anything.
To figure out my answer to the Dylan question, I’ve plodded through a lot of media reaction from mid-October, when Sara Darius of the Swedish Academy announced the controversial choice. It meant, of course, passing over literary heavyweights like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Adonis, and Haruki Murakami. Maybe that’s why Darius defended the decision by invoking Homer and Sappho as Dylan’s forebears in joining words with music. Following her lead, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone compared Dylan to Shakespeare for his lifelong commitment to popular performance that had left no time for him to worry about literary aspirations. (With more humility, Dylan made much the same case in the acceptance speech he sent to Stockholm.) New York Times critic Dwight Garner ranked him alongside Whitman and Dickinson as “an authentic American voice.” For his part, Bloomberg View’s Cass R. Sunstein argued that Dylan “surpassed” Whitman as “the defining American artist, celebrating the capacity for self-invention as the highest form of freedom,” then quoted Dylan: “he not busy being born is busy dying.”
A different Dylan line resonated with me this fall: “the times they are a-changing.” Darius quoted it in her post-announcement remarks, and a lot of critics did, too, either in exasperation or delight. With its enormous cultural authority and in one go, the Swedish Academy broadened the definition of literature: “It’s not just your grandfather’s novels anymore,” declared the Dylan scholar David Gaines, sounding cavalier and sexist. But in sizing up traditional notions of literature as old-fashioned, he has a point. We all know the general public hardly buys or reads literary books the way it used to. Only when an author gets the sort of big-time attention the Nobel bestows does that larger public seem to notice or care. Anna North of the New York Times put it this way: “Bob Dylan does not need a Nobel Prize in Literature, but literature needs a Nobel Prize.”
Here’s a question: did the Nobel Prize for Literature need Bob Dylan? Did its minders hope to spare the prize from an increasingly compromised association with nothing but old-fashioned literature by choosing a singer-songwriter and a cool countercultural hipster at that? In turn, some of Dylan’s fans probably think less of him for getting his stuffy Nobel. Probably his delay in acknowledging the prize and absence from the award ceremony had something to do with maintaining his reputation as an anti-establishment renegade.
I don’t fault Dylan for that. Promoting and managing a reputation has long been central to an artist’s job. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, avant-garde fine artists and entertainers alike have marketed themselves as provocative and unique and easily recognizable through trademark styles or porkpie hats. By now, millions of us regular people have followed suit and routinely self-promote, updating our Facebook profiles, uploading new videos to our YouTube channels, tweeting fresh remarks, and measuring success by our number of “likes,” views, and followers. Surely it’s a culture of narcissism as some have said, but I think there’s something else in the way so many of us invent and cultivate our personal brands. Business is in us. It’s a part of us. Dylan’s admonishing line, “he not busy being born is busy dying,” really does define America (and the world) today: his words about busy-ness could be quoted in business school. Long before these values permeated the avant-garde and then the rest of us, eighteenth- century manufacturing and marketing pioneers like Josiah Wedgwood studied trends and managed public perceptions of their companies to compete for market share. The Nobel, new and improved for the twenty- first century, may well be an example of the infusion of business values into a cultural institution that had once seemed impermeable to them.
Then again, maybe I’m overthinking things. Maybe our new Nobel Laureate deserves the last word: “don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
When it comes to Bob Dylan, I have always been intrigued by the reverent title of “the voice of a generation.” I recognize that Bob Dylan’s work means much less to me than to the people who personally experienced the America in which he evolved as an artist. His songs persist with incredible relevance in my own generation, and yet I am caught on one word—deserve. What specific prerequisites and qualities does the Swedish Academy discuss as they consider their nominees? I wonder if Bob Dylan deserves the Medal of Freedom, too, which he received for his influence on American culture over the last half-century. It’s easier to understand what the Medal of Freedom seeks to honor—significant contribution of some sort—than what the Nobel Prize does. Perhaps we should look to why Dylan is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in the year 2016 and what that communicates about the current global perception of America.
In 2009, President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for having “captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future” through his Cairo speech. Like many others, I questioned this gesture by the committee and what they were trying to tell the world, to tell America. After all, a prize is simply a form of communication to say this is what we value most, what has inspired us, what has led our imaginations into a new place we’ve always wanted to visit. President Obama represented the idea that the most unlikely part of the American dream could be made into reality if, as the announcement states, we focus on the “values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”
The announcement avoids naming these values and attitudes. This was in part the key to President Obama’s own success—being ambiguous in his support so that he could say he supports us all. The irony, of course, is that the rhetoric of racial and ethnic divisiveness cemented its twenty-first-century revival during the Obama presidency, and we have found ourselves in 2016 in a climate that does not at all resemble the hopefulness the world saw in our nation in 2009.
Now Bob Dylan has won a Nobel Prize, which like Obama’s own award, many have come in to question. Again, the Nobel Prize committee seems to be talking directly to us with its unique international authority. But to parse it out, we have to go back further to the last time an American won the literature prize—Toni Morrison. She was chosen in 1993 for being a “visionary force.” The wording of her announcement reflects a hopeful glance into the future, like Obama’s. In contrast, Dylan has created “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While Morrison gives the world “an essential aspect of American reality,” Dylan returns us to the past, to American tradition and poetry. It’s in making this choice that the committee is attempting to be visionary, to go back to the past while forging a new sense of what should be considered literature in the future. But this acknowledgement that Bob Dylan is more tradition than vision is a sign that something has been lost in terms of our own sense of what America is, and both American people and the world are desperate to find it.
In reading up on Bob Dylan, the most useful sources to me, personally, are those written in Spanish and French by people who only know Americanness as it is portrayed within a global mosaic. I have a harder time understanding the commentary and even the odes written about Bob Dylan by American scholars because they talk about Dylan in a context that feels too separate from the America I know. I turn to the scrutinizing eyes of the world instead. The Spanish literary magazine Revista Litoral published an essay about Bob Dylan in its 1989 issue themed “The Poetry of Rock.” The essay saw the poetic reality in Bob Dylan’s early albums, which were rooted in its generation and time. The essay claims that Bob Dylan’s poetry loses its power when it becomes self-aware—as it does in the later albums—that it is the voice of a generation.
Immerse yourself in the Bob Dylan of tradition, the product of his love for Woody Guthrie and the deep influence of the blues in his music, and you will find a world you recognize. In The Times They Are A’Changin’, Dylan’s lyrics demand self-reflection. The songs dive into the kind of alienation that many people have felt in the last year, myself among them. I found an echo of my solitude in the stories of Hollis Brown, Medgar Evers, Hattie Carroll. Bob Dylan isn’t my kind of poet, but he is my kind of storyteller. Over the years, he has collected pieces of American stories—marginal and mainstream—and woven them together as though he had merely stumbled upon their natural state. Even the darkest of misfits has a place in Dylan’s portrait of America. But here lies the catch-22. Dylan’s earliest songs harken to our own individual and national darkness, and in making him the voice of a generation, his own voice loses the power it had by singing stories that America once refused to acknowledge.
I honestly think the committee meant to give us a vision of hope and regeneration by choosing Dylan. But the problem is that Bob Dylan’s win would have meant much more decades ago than it does now. He has been absorbed into the American bloodstream, and his potent voice realized its political and cultural might a little too late. He is now an American reverie, deserving of our honor, yes, but not a reflection of the bodies of literature trying to carve a better world than the past ever cared to give us.
I am humbled and brought to my knees as I approach the question of Bob Dylan’s literary status. His true importance is not known to the generations who have experienced him in real time but will only be apparent to future generations. To ask whether he is a poet is akin to asking if Philip K. Dick was a literary writer. But it’s a question that must be addressed head-on, since many, in the strange literary culture we inhabit these days, have their doubts. I must admit that I hadn’t studied Dylan closely before he won the Nobel Prize, but the deeper I got into his work over the last few months, the more impressed I became with his poetic chops, until I became convinced that he did more for poetry, was more of a poet, and asked more of poets and their listeners, than almost anyone in the last century.
He’s definitely comparable in the impact he’s had on poetry to the greatest of the romantics and the modernists. You don’t need to know his work, you don’t need to have been directly exposed to him, you don’t even need to know his name, to be molded by him. If you’re a poet in our time, you have been influenced by poets who have been influenced by him, his prophetic sensibility, his visions of apocalyptic utopia, his challenge to poetry as a democratic art of, yes, civic protest, but also radical skepticism. You cannot get away from Dylan, the greatest of our poets of the last stages of empire, whose records he faithfully chronicled, true to the tradition of prophecy he inherited.
And it is prophecy—something that sprung in him full-blown at a young age comparable to Keats’s or Rimbaud’s—that defines the magic of his poetry. There’s simply no other way to describe how he arrived, wise and knowing beyond his years, in the Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, and at the speed of light mastered the extant traditions of American folk, progressive rock, blues, everything that went into the unique song-poems he created at breakneck pace in his peak 1962– 1966 period, when he was perhaps the greatest singer-poet the world has ever known.
The paucity of his formal learning suggests that the true art of poetry is unteachable, unlearnable, all the formal components that go into the making of a poem as the harmonic concordance of sound and values and insinuation. Formal training gets in the way of mastery of the formal elements of poetry, which is a paradox applicable to all the arts; though this doesn’t mean shunning learning, without which any art cannot proceed beyond the unsophisticated, but capturing, intuitively and at blinding speed, all the content of the formal substance of an art, cutting directly to it without being tutored, which takes us to pure genius. Listen to the music that was being produced in avant- garde folk circles in the early 1960s and you’ll see that Dylan’s poetry didn’t proceed from any existing milieu; he sounded like no one else.
In the resonant 2007 movie I’m Not There, where experimental director Todd Haynes deploys six different characters to play the elusive Dylan, the most interesting performance is the first one, with Dylan played as a young black boy, wise beyond his years, a hobo traveling the country on freight trains and delighting audiences with his preternatural skills; he carries a guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” just as Woody Guthrie used to do, but the idea is that there is no rational explanation for genius of the order of Dylan. Likewise, in D. A. Pennebaker’s seminal 1967 cinéma vérité production, Don’t Look Back (which is itself the main source of parody for I’m Not There), Dylan’s conversations with representatives of the media establishment seem to me articulations of sincere prophecy, not juvenile sophomoric interventions, as the blindest of the critics have sometimes suggested.
Dylan knew not to insist on his message, if he had a message; this refined poetic sensibility, his refusal to reduce words to identifiable meanings, meant that he could never last too long as boon companion to the alt-folk tradition, and his breakup with them in the mid-sixties is understandable. Theirs was a form of poetry too, Pete Seeger’s and Guthrie’s, but I think a lower form, which could be delineated and laid out, whereas Dylan’s poetry made everyone, including above all himself, complicit in the narratives of crimes (against nature, against humanity, against the intellect and the senses) that he was articulating in each of his poems.
Consider, for example, “Masters of War,” which is thought of as the greatest “protest song” ever written. His deadpan delivery is the fever that brings that song to a threshold of radical consciousness, his poetic technique not merely content to update a Biblical curse for a contemporary purpose but interested in giving a new twist to the idea of the curse in the first place. Does the Bible appeal to what we call the “common people”? Yes, but there is a certain elitism about it in that you have to be among the elect to get the message, and the message—curse or blessing—is specific and determinate, as is true of all scripture. So Dylan’s poetry—and his prophetic assimilation of the temper of the times—does scripture one better, by not succumbing to scripture’s faults, which is not a citizen-to-citizen modern conversation but one that always condescends.
I believe that in “Masters of War,” to persist with the label of prophet I’ve pinned on him, he was invalidating Christianity, and probably all religion, to the extent that the articulate patterns of religion dictate the structural forms it will take, which inevitably lead to hypocrisy. He’s aware of the radical stance he’s taking, at a phenomenally young age, against the trafficking priests of the church, who do not hurl abuse and condemnation at the merchants of death the way they should: “How much do I know / To talk out of turn / You might say that I’m young / You might say that I’m unlearned / But there’s one thing I know / Though I’m younger than you / That even Jesus would never / Forgive what you do.” Jesus as the modern artistic/individualistic/libertarian temperament, who does not forgive; contemporary art is all about the posture of compassion, empathy, and disclosure, but that is not what Dylan is doing in his much superior poetry.
I find his long narrative ballads fascinating, almost impossible feats to pull off after poets like Edwin Arlington Robinson (a decent poet) and Stephen Vincent Benet (a terrible one) almost killed off the form in the early twentieth century. An early song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” is an exemplar of Dylan’s ability to narrate, at length, social facts, which he could go on doing with considerable amplitude (such as a later recounting of racial injustice, the arrest of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, on his 1976 album Desire). Simply to tell a story at this level, juggling the narrative balls in the air, is a considerable feat today when we wish to subvert the plainest facts with a dose of irony. Which is not to say that Dylan doesn’t deploy irony in this ballad. As he describes the casual act of violence of William Zantzinger in the opening two stanzas, and then contrasts it with the dreary life of Hattie Carroll (“She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children / Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage / And never sat once at the head of the table / And didn’t even talk to the people at the table / Who just cleaned up all the food from the table / And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level”), and finally presents the court as the arbiter of the injustice, justifying and confirming it, Dylan’s words reek with irony: but it is irony stemming from prophecy, from a concern beyond his need to feel good about himself (as he takes on those “who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears”).
This self-distancing is what lets him tell long stories, stories that compel him to put himself in the shoes of another without the patronizing we associate with openly imperialist writers or the equal condescension we see today from writers in the politically correct liberal camp afraid of cultural appropriation. He doesn’t have to worry about himself, the story takes over, and it seems that the details, and the right words to convey the details, fall into place effortlessly.
In “Hattie Carroll,” he understands the use of negative space: we can say that here he deploys negative space negatively, that is, he doesn’t leave much space, although the lines aren’t long, he doesn’t leave a vacuum for our own short-sighted morality to step in; it is one expert way in which he lets prophecy take over his spirit. In “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” he uses long lines that build surrealist image after image to convey a sense of violent apocalypse that has already occurred, is in the past, present, and future simultaneously. At the other extreme, in love songs like “To Ramona,” he uses spaces, gaps, absences, silences to convey the unbridgeable distance between what we want our lover to be and what he or she is or can be in reality; he varies diction, from heavier words that put a greater burden on his voice to convey the allure of love, to softer words that rush through the inevitability of consummated love, and leaves the listener perpetually in the middle, unable to cross over to either side. His are all songs of unknowability, a poetry of silence, even when we think he’s being quite articulate as to what he expects from us; quite aside from all the technical wizardry, he’s making us approach his poetry with the expectation that we will enter it visually, aurally, spiritually, physically.
Plainspokenness, as Dylan often engages it in the style of the great Chinese poets like Li Po, takes us to a manner of directness that is also the highest form of irony, though not narcissistic and self-involved; it is a mode of writing that is simply not available to us today.
So, again, what did Dylan do as a poet? He took the living Beat tradition, from Allen Ginsberg (who was a huge acolyte) to Jack Kerouac, and turned it into a lament not just against the cruel world, which of course he did, but against the cruelty of mortality itself; his takeover of the Beat tradition makes it more melancholic, in tune with the collapse of the moral order, a riposte to the art of poetry itself as a limitation for the thinking person. He took the (French) surrealist tradition and infused it with a democracy of protest—and I don’t mean protest against this or that government policy, war, or surveillance, but protest as the minute-by-minute condition of every individual, as a Camus or Sartre would have imagined it. He took our own American tradition of optimism and democracy, viz. Whitman and Emerson, and made of it something so democratic that democracy in essence ceases to exist; that is to say, he took a hegemonic idea and exploded its insides, so that anyone who listens to him today cannot but go away feeling devastated about the vacuity of our most common public ideas. He took the dark and even frightening poetry of the Mississippi delta blues and gave it an urban confidence and bravado, a stripped-down individualism that is a continuation of our native tradition of self- reliance, yes, but also something beyond it, a look past the constraints of any of our present models of scarcity, and he did it by way of the richness of his poetic language that is at the same time bare of pretense and fake irony.
What can today’s young poets learn from Dylan as a role model?
Don’t limit yourself to one voice, one style, one way of expressing yourself; look at the incredible variety of modes Dylan chooses, resorting to the whole poetic tradition.
Don’t rely on the individual elements of a poem to finish it as a work of art; there has to be something beyond it, something none of the elements by themselves can quite capture; that ineffable thing is your soul, it’s all the ways the world finds it impossible to comprehend you, but you must put it in your poem, or it will be soulless.
Choose technique, understand it, assimilate it; but then abandon it. Listen to how he abandons, in each real-time moment, everything he has shown you about technique, not least by deploying his voice to deconstruct, to work against, the arsenal of technique. Which essentially leads to the point that without technique, your poetry is nothing.
Don’t think of yourself as a poet, rather, think of yourself as a worker, an artisan, a lowly craftsman; by doing so, you will lose your fear of words, your debilitating self-consciousness, as Dylan did. At his peak, he had zero self-consciousness; it was a big bang of enlightenment which, despite his fallow patches, still has something of the original shine about it, as late as albums like Tempest (2012) and Fallen Angels (2016).
Make your poetry incomplete, by having simultaneously too little and too much of it, in each poem; this is why Dylan’s song-poems work so well to this day; he infuses them with an immortality that comes from carrying a burden of knowledge that expands infinitely with our capacity to accept it. The old adage that god doesn’t burden anyone more than they can bear has it exactly wrong.
The Nobel committee did the right thing at the right time, reminding us of what is greatest about our poetic tradition and also making the point that our best days are behind us, just at the moment when we are saddled with the worst fascism that has ever inflicted our land. The committee posed the urgent question of whether literature is restricted to the page, to solitary consumption, to the academy, and to the establishment, or if it is something more diffuse, blending disturbing art forms and methods of expression, stemming from the energies of the people in a voice that can hardly be captured before it escapes. The conditions of prophecy in which Dylan came into being ceased to exist in the 1960s, as the full impact of the Kennedy assassination, the American government turning upon its own people to carry forward empire’s logic, began becoming manifest, as Dylan well recognized, and as his many retreats (which were also affirmations) of the second half of the 1960s, and really all the decades since then, have amply testified to. There will be no more Dylans; he ended his prophecy by way of the famous motorcycle accident in 1966, leaving us in the lurch, as he should have.