Yes, Dylan Is a Poet

Yesterday, it was announced that Bob Dylan  won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. Shorty after the news broke, social media responded. President Obama tweeted congrats to one of his “favorite poets.” Springsteen said, “Bob Dylan is the father of my country: ‘Highway 61 Revisited and ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived.”

Some writers also came out in favor of the decision. Joyce Carol Oates said that Dylan’s haunting music and lyrics always seemed “literary” to her. Salmon Rushdie also praised the choice. Other reactions, however, were less kind. Novelist Irving Welsh said, “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

For a more complete round-up of reactions, click here.

My Facebook feed yesterday was filled with mixed reactions. However, I was especially surprised to see some of my poet friends claim that Dylan isn’t a “writer.” One poet even labeled Dylan a “pop star,” and a very good one at that, but not a writer. To me, this reaction reeked of high-brow snobbery and reminded me of people who immediately dismiss hip-hop as non-music and its lyrics as non-poetry, despite its use of carefully constructed meters and complex rhyme schemes. Others have already pointed out a number of reasons why Dylan is a writer, and I don’t have much to add. I will state, however, that Dylan’s literary influences, especially in poetry, are well-known. He grew up reading everyone from Rumi to Pound to Ginsberg. He is also the author of a best-selling memoir from a few years ago, Chronicles.  If anyone doubts his talents as a writer, then they need to listen to and read the lyrics to a number of his songs. I personally recommend “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Song to Woody,” or “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

Upon making the announcement, the Nobel Prize committee noted that Dylan has opened up new forms and pathways in terms of lyrics. This is certainly true. At first, Dylan penned protest songs in the vein of Pete Seeger and gave the Civil Rights/anti-war movement some of its most important anthems, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall,” which is perhaps his greatest achievement lyrically from his early-mid 60s folk/acoustic period. The song samples a number of biblical passages and paints in surreal, apocalyptic imagery suited for 1960s America. By the time he went electric and plugged in at the NewPort Folk Festival, Dylan’s lyrics had changed, especially on his first electric albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.  His use of sampling classic and religious texts grew, as did his ability to juxtapose images and create non-linear song structures.

As a poet, I agree with those who say Dylan is deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature. I understand the arguments that a lesser-known writer should have received the prize, but in response to some of the reactions I’ve seen on social media, I say this: let’s broaden our notions of poetry and not dismiss an artist simply because he is immensely popular on a global scale. We should also ask why American poets are rarely even considered for the prize anymore. What does that say about the current state of contemporary American poetry and its place and influence?



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