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?



Towards the Splendid City

I am currently re-reading Lofty Dogmas, a collection of essays on poetry edited by Maxine Kumin, Annie Finch, and Deborah Brown. For anyone interested in poetry, this is a great book to have on your shelf. It has some of the most important essays/letters written by some of the most influential poets, including John Keats, Percy Shelley,  William Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Rainer Maria Rilke, and some more contemporary poets such as Robert Hass, Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Bernstein, and on and on.

A lot of these essays I’ve already read a few times, but there is one I came across this time that I wasn’t familiar with and enjoyed thoroughly. The essay/lecture comes from Pablo Neruda, and it’s titled “Towards the Splendid City.” It is the speech/lecture he gave after winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971.

He raises some great points in it about the craft of writing poetry and the poet’s relation to society. First, he brings up the point that writers need a balance of solitude and interaction with community/society to produce good work. “I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enters as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature.”

There are a lot of ideas just in that one sentence, including Neruda’s belief that poetry is an action that requires time, space, and solitude, but  it is also an art form that requires connection to community and nature.

Neruda also stresses in the lecture/essay the importance of reaching out to the community. I think this is an especially important point. Those skilled in poetry should consider creating workshops, reading series, and other events to share poetry with others and to give people a chance to share their work with others. These experiences are rich and fulfilling for those involved, and often leave the community feeling inspired and more likely to keep writing.

Neruda makes some other good points in the lecture/essay and stresses that a poet should not be a “little god.” He goes on to say, “He is not picked out of mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts of professions.” He adds that the best poets are those who “prepare our daily bread.”

Neruda ends the lecture/essay by commenting on his own work, saying, “I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed, and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope.”

If you are interested in reading the full essay/lecture, you can do so by clicking here.