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?



Bob Dylan Being Bob Dylan

If you want an interesting and entertaining read, then I suggest you pick up the latest issue of Rolling Stone featuring Bob Dylan on the cover. The interview between the American folk/blues troubadour and reporter Mikal Gilmore raises a lot of interesting points about the history of race in America, using other writers in one’s work, and Dylan’s own career. The full interview is not available online, but you can find one of the most riveting sections online here.

The interview has caused some buzz because Dylan addresses plagiarism issues that have dogged him for years, dating back to when he was accused of copying the words for “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a college student and the music from an old gospel hymn. This time, Dylan holds nothing back and says “F*uck ’em” to his critics, adding, “He’ll see them in their graves.” He does acknowledge that he has quoted other writers in his work before, including Civil War-era poet Henry Timrod, but he says that quoting other work is a long tradition in folk music.

The criticism and Dylan’s reaction to it raise a good point when pondering any art form. When is it okay to quote the work of others, and when is it plagiarism? I would argue that if you are using a line or two in your own work, but reworking it and doing something new with it, it’s not plagiarism, and that seems to be Dylan’s argument. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to give a citation in an album’s notes.

Dylan covers a lot of other issues in the interview, including the 1960s, and his desire to move as far away from that era as possible, as well as his new album, Tempest, and how he felt after President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Interestingly enough, after discussing the history of slavery and racisim in this country, Dylan refuses to state whether or not he thinks this country has changed and is any closer to a post-racial era, due to the election of its first black president.

The interivew offers a lot of insight regarding Dylan’s new album, his view on history, and the way he’s been treated by the press and his fans, including the Judas label he was given in the mid-1960s for going electric. Some of Dylan’s answers are befuddling, but that’s how he’s always been. Check it out if you’re a fan of his, or you just want a good read.

Dylan at 70

This Tuesday, one of America’s best-known musical icons, Bob Dylan, turns 70. Rolling Stone currently has a whole issue dedicated to Dylan’s 70 best songs, chosen by editors and musicians, including Bono and Mick Jagger. Bob Dylan remains one of my favorite artists ever, and anyone who knows me well knows I have a slew of his albums, spanning most phases of his career, on vinyl or CD. I am not, however, going to even attempt picking my favorite Dylan songs. Hs discography is far too vast, and there are songs I love from each of his musical/artistic phases, whether it be his early years when he tried so hard to be Woody Guthrie, or his more recent blues rock phase.

I first heard of Dylan when I was a kid. My sister Nicole had a lot of his stuff on CD, and I remember that she used to joke with her friends that the mid-60s era Dylan was “cute,” with his mop of curly hair and black sunglasses. But I didn’t really start listening to Dylan until I was in college and became deeply involved with a slew of left-wing causes. Dylan’s earlier albums, especially The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A’Changin’, were comforting in the age of the Bush Administration, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and the Patriot Act. Dylan’s condemnation of the military industrial complex and the “bomb makers” on “Masters of War” sounded just as poignant in 2002 as it did in the early 1960s.  And his apocalyptic war visions on “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” found new meaning to me as the bombs started falling in Baghdad in March 2003.

Shortly after acquiring Dylan’s early acoustic albums, I bought all of his early electric albums, including Bringin’ It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisted, albums that earned Dylan the “sell-out” tag from folk purists because by the mid-1960s, when those album were released, he left the politicking and acoustic guitars behind. But I didn’t mind the electric sound, and in fact, I appreciated his willingness to evolve as an artist, to expand his writing to include references that involved everything from T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to various rock critics at the time that got under his skin.

Over the years, I collected several of Dylan’s albums, even the ones from his Christian phase, and on each album, I’ve always found little gems and have enjoyed Dylan’s wit, trademark snarl, and rambling narratives. Above all, I’ve always been impressed by Dylan to transform, to progress as an artist, to not stay trapped in one phase for too long. Even at 70, Dylan is still selling out shows and drawing controversy, including his most recent trip to China where he didn’t play any of his famous protest songs, drawing ire from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who felt Dylan should have used the massive stage to speak out against China’s human rights issues. But throughout the decades, Dylan always did what he wanted. Why would he stop at 70?