Look, I can’t tell you where Bob Dylan fits in the pantheon of poets. I can’t even talk to you intelligently about his broad range of poetic influences, which have been listed in almost every article about him this week. Nor can I recommend you go to one of his Never Ending Tour concerts. But I can tell you I am overjoyed that the Nobel committee recognized his work as literature.
I knew his hits as a kid — they played regularly in the car or in the house. He was even a significant element of my iTunes library as I passed through my Springsteen, Beatles, and Billy Joel phases in middle and early high school. But I had my own moment with him, the deep connection to his mystical words in my senior year. I spent the summer prior at an acting school in New York City, meeting people who filled my head with all sorts of curiosities, mostly because their worldly quality made me jealous. I hadn’t really picked up a book of my own volition in my life, except perhaps a sports book. I returned home for my senior year having tasted independence, filled with new ideas, but confined to what now seemed to be a small world. It was fortunate timing for my dad to give me his car for the year, until I left for college. Driving became my great joy. It was independence and adventure. It was solitude and imagination. During these rides — which included at least two long, round-trips to my dad’s house weekly — Dylan didn’t just become my soundtrack; he became an extension of my imagination. He told stories about wild vagrants who had left home to encounter new realities like I had done that summer, and planned to do again for college:
Leave your stepping-stones behind; There’s something that calls for you. / Forget the dead you’ve left; They will not follow you. / The vagabond who’s rapping at your door / Is standing in the clothes that you once wore. (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue)
He put expression to revolutionary new happenings in my head and the renewal that they brought me:
My existence led by confusion boats, Mutiny from stern to bow, / Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now. (“My Back Pages”)
He captured characters that mirrored the more sophisticated friends I had made:
Then she opened up a book of poems / And handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century / And every one of those words rang true and glowed like burning coal / Pouring off of every page / Like it was written in my soul (“Tangled up in Blue”)
And he talked about how these characters changed me when he dreamt up an uncivilized brute tamed by a magnanimous heroin:
‘Twas in another lifetime / One of toil and blood / When blackness was a virtue / And the road was full of mud / I came in from the wilderness/ A creature void of form / “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you / Shelter from the storm.” (“Shelter from the Storm”)
And of course these were just lyrics that I painted my own stories onto. That’s often what we do with songs, no matter who the lyricist is. But his lyrics transcend the music. The words are independently impactful, they just happen to be shaped around the music. Dylan uses melody for his poems like a carpenter might use a jig, it cuts the lines and rhymes around a structured rhythm. In fact, many people are critical of his live performances because he often mixes up and rearranges those well known melodies, sometimes improvising the phrasing of the words on stage. He might hold out on the audience for a beat before cramming a line into a quick space. But this pliability sets him apart. His language stands alone. While most artists’ songs get stuck in your head, Dylan’s words were stuck in mine.
Dylan’s work is an intellectual puzzle. His allusions and inspirations are deeply woven into his fast-paced, imagery-fraught tales. His street-talk rolls quickly off the tongue and washes a deluge of second-long scenes over you. Take “It’s Alright Ma” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” both of which pack half a dozen images into long lines of verse. Read as poetry, you might have to gulp a breath of air to get the whole line out properly. These works behave no differently than the free verse lines of a poem like Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”, which can hold up several characters, scenes, or descriptions in just one long breath. The lines cast traditional grammar aside and jumble their syntax to cut right to the meat of the message — the image, the phrase, the idea, the emotion. It’s true artistry of language. Beyond mastering the puzzles of language, he dreamt up incredible casts of eccentric characters, which is perfectly evident in the rich long tale of “Desolation Row”. It pulls an eclectic group of misfits into the desolate aftermath of a once convivial atmosphere. But the truly amazing thing about the song is how vivid and fascinating the characters are. Here he reveals one you might know — but who has fallen far from grace in Dylan’s tale — and brings him to life in a picture of idiosyncratic, aimless wandering:
Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, with his memories in a trunk / Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk. / He looked so immaculately frightful / as he bummed a cigarette, / And he went of sniffing drainpipes, / and reciting the alphabet.
Another qualification for the literary nature of Dylan’s songs is the fact that, more often than not, the words carry more of the emotional weight than the music. Consider some of the awe inducing lyrics of “Chimes of Freedom”:
Through the mad, mystic hammering / Of the wild, ripping hale / The sky cracked its poems in Naked wonder
Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far off corner flared / And the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting, / Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones / Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
These lyrics are visceral; they’re confounding in an absolutely magical way. Where is the far off corner of the sky? And how does your mind make an image of that? What would it be like to stand in a hypnotic splattered mist? There is a sense in this scene that things are clearing but that there is some hellish reality that remains, some inescapable chaos that never lifts like the hypnotic mist does.
And since this is a freedom song, it isn’t a far stretch to imagine that he’s alluding to the brutal, ceaseless reality of oppression. While he handles weighty subjects well with this lofty language, he also spoke to it more plainly — but no less beautifully — in songs like “Hurricane,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Masters of War,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”. There is little he wrote more incisive than the plainly stated rhetorical questions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to which society can not comprehensibly reply:
How many times must cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned? / The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
But for all the weighty subjects he lends his mastery of language to, he can also bust your belly with his comic absurdity, like in several lines out of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”:
She just smoked my eyelids / And punched my cigarette
And I would send a message / To find out if she’s talked / But the post office has been stolen / And the mailbox is locked
I knew he’d lost control / When he built a fire on Main Street / And shot it full of holes
This was Dylan’s playful side. This was the snarky little punk that you can see in press conference videos from the 60’s or interviews with journalists. He snapped at one reporter by retorting, “How can I answer that question if you’ve got the nerve to ask me?” Part of his allure will always be the fact that he is some shadow of himself, some enigmatic prophet whose personality doesn’t square with the person we want him to be. He was never the charming little kid that would tell us what we wanted to know about him. The Beatles could be snarky, for instance, but they were charming. They were charismatic little jokesters, always pairing their sarcasm with a wink and embracing their fans lovingly. Dylan, on the other hand, went to great lengths to piss them off because he thought he knew better. It turns out, he did.
He famously “went electric” at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival and was booed at for being a sell out to rock n’ roll. In spite of the ire of the folk purists, he went electric on songs that would go onto be among his most legendary, including “Like a Rolling Stone”, which you could consider his magnum opus. But he didn’t mind boos. He reveled in them. When they tried to name him the ‘voice of a generation’ he shunned the title. In fact, some interpret his bitter song “It Ain’t Me, Babe” — a song that shuns a lover because they’re too demanding — as a veiled message to those who wished to venerate him as a prophet, even after he refused to write more “protest songs” for them. That is why it will be interesting to see how he reacts to this high honor. I think my elation over this announcement is precisely because of the fact that Bob Dylan, the man, is almost powerless to stop it. Regardless of what he might say about it, the decision validates the work as exceptional. In fact, as he has said, he isn’t really the person who wrote those words. He was spoken to, he was visited for a number of years with a voice. Though it has since left him, it is that voice that this award praises. Many have made the case that Dylan is poetry because of the vast historical tradition of language he drew on. But I think what is equal to that is the work he inspired — that’s what makes him a part of the legendary class of poets he drew on. You can find traces of his lyrics or style in the songs of many artists. In fact, many artists have hit songs that you’ll find out were written by Bob Dylan — famous songs like “Knocking’ on Heaven’s Door,” “All Along the Watch Tower,” and “Wagon Wheel” just for starters. This is not to mention the fact that The Byrds probably had twice as many hits redoing Dylan songs than they had of their own. He was the seminal lyricist of a whole generation and that means his work changed the direction of music. This is why he is singular. I love the Beatles, but Paul McCartney is more a musician than a poet. (Plus, who knows if he and John wouldn’t have written the deeper, late albums had Dylan not introduced them to pot. I’m only kidding; we should really credit the person who introduced them to acid.)
In fact, the Beatles songbook alone is a microcosm of this change. Their early albums were influenced by 1950s rock. The songs are 2 to 3 minute little ditties with a nice riff, a catchy chorus, and some harmonies. Most of them deal with romance. This is what popular music was — catchy tunes. But their albums change quickly after “Help!” — “Rubber Soul” acting as a transition — and they go deeper thematically and grow weightier in language. Surely this is the effect of becoming a studio band, the effect of drugs, and the effect of their spiritual journey to India. But I think you could also call this change the Dylan Effect: forever after Dylan it was not seen as too heady or intellectual to use popular music lyrics to paint epic pictures and bring forth new ideas. So I celebrate this moment, if for no other reason than because of what the New York Times editorial board pointed out: “Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature is a blessed relief, a gift of something else to think about, or argue about, that isn’t dire and ugly like the other October surprises the month has thrown at us.” Let us argue over this art, whether or not it’s literature. To critics who argue that pure writers needed the recognition of the award to up their book sales because literature is going out of style, let me point out that our best hope at winning a new generation of readers over to traditional poetry is to venerate Dylan as the bridge between literature and mass culture, rather than to tear this work down as unqualified. If Bob Dylan’s mystifying songbook was my window into the world of artistically structured language, it can be everyone’s window. I admit to finding poetry hard to grasp at times. But will never stop trying because I’m always looking to run across words and phrases that will shake my world like Dylan’s did.
Just a few suggestions (of songs not mentioned above): “Visions of Johanna” “When the Ship Comes In”, which was performed at the 1963 March on Washington with Joan Baez “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” “Idiot Wind”