Dylan Symposium - Dave Marsh
The Celestial Monochord now an "author blog"

Against Bob Dylan as Poet Laureate of Minnesota

Dylan writing
Daniel Kramer (?) photo that's almost as good as a painting

 

This week, Governor Tim Pawlenty said he'll finally sign a bill establishing a state poet position in Minnesota.

That's a reversal of Pawlenty's stand on the issue. The poet laureate position would cost nothing (it would be unpaid — who ever heard of a paid poet?), so the governor's previous opposition seemed to stem from his simply being a jackass. Explaining his 2005 veto of a similar bill, he warned "We could also see requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter." Anyway, for whatever reason, it now seems the state will have its poet.

Bob Dylan is among the writers who've been suggested for the first Poet Laureate of Minnesota. When you consider the wet blankets who are the more likely choices — the bland and obvious Patricia Hampl and Robert Bly — the choice of Bob Dylan would be wonderful. I would be delighted. But then, not everything is about my happiness.

There are some philosophical and logistical problems with His Bobness occupying the role. For starters, I don't think Dylan would accept, and if he did, I don't think he would show up and read Robert Frost to third-graders with the gusto that Bly would bring to the task.

Back when my wife was teaching poetry at the University of Minnesota, students would frequently bring in favorite "poems" that turned out to be Bob Dylan songs — or Patti Smith or Leonard Cohen or Doors songs — stripped of their music. Oddly, any suggestion that these were not really poems, but rather lyrics to songs, was interpreted as denying their quality. To say that Dylan is a lyricist and not a poet was to say that he isn't very good at what he does.

As I remember it, my wife seemed most concerned that her students didn't know bad poetry when they saw it. I was more troubled by the idea that a great lyricist needs to be confused for a poet to get any respect.

Around the same time, we went to the opening of an exhibition of photographs by a friend of ours. During the Q&A session, someone gushed that his photographs were so wonderful they almost looked like PAINTINGS. I thought I saw our friend suppress a cringe. A great photographer is not merely a frustrated painter, an artist who can't draw. Painting and photography share certain principles, potentials and limitations, but photography can do many things — and mean in many ways — that painting can never hope to do or mean. Still, we don't think of Jackson Pollock as just a rotten photographer.

Similarly, the writing of song lyrics is an art that shares a few devices with poetry — rhyme, lines, metaphor — but its essence is entirely different. Lyrics stand in relation, like plot stands in relation to character and setting in a novel. Isolating plot from all the other elements of a novel leaves you with ... well, Cliff Notes. Even if it's a good plot.

Certainly, you can isolate lyrics from their music to see if they "stand on their own" — but that's not a test of their quality. Great lyrics can sound horrid without their music, and horrid lyrics can be OK on their own. Stripping the music away from song lyrics is like stripping a poem of its verbs. The poem might still work well on some level, but only by accident. To be a good poem, you don't have to hold up without your verbs.

Or ... well, how about yet another comparison ... how about lyrics as film, and music as projector? We would never say a film isn't great on the grounds that it doesn't "stand on its own" as a spooled-up strip of plastic in a can.

At the recent Dylan symposium in Minneapolis, Anne Waldman read a quote from Bob ... I wish I could locate it now, instead of repeating it from memory. Its essence was like this: "I decided I didn't want to write novels or poems or plays. Those had already been done, and I wanted a fresh field. I wanted to write songs. Nobody had ever written songs before. Not REALLY."

I took this desire to "really" write songs as meaning that no writer of popular songs had ever taken full advantage of the full set of literary techniques and attitudes available to poets and other writers — all the approaches to metaphor and image and plot and, most of all, meaning. Dylan exported, if you will, all of that poetic language and vision from poetry to popular song.

There may have been a time when Dylan seemed to severely test the boundary between poetry and lyrics — a moment of confusion. But I think he is a victim of his own success. Much of the rest of the songwriting world has learned the lessons he had to teach, adopted some of his approach, and now nobody doubts that Stop Making Sense and The Missing Years and Mule Variations are collections of songs, not poems set to music.

I've fidgeted with these ideas for quite a while because of Dylan's nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature. The day that Dylan's Nobel is announced will be one of the happiest of my life. I would be beside myself with joy. But if I were on the Nobel selection committee — not a very plausible counter-factual here, folks — I would vote against him.

I've been on committees, and it takes a very peculiar state of mind to serve on them well. You have to think like a committee member, tracking where your power is and where it is not, remembering that everything you do can undermine your own best intentions. As Bob himself said, " A lot of things can get in the way when you're trying to do what's right."

As a committee member, I would have to acknowledge that literature is something you write down on a piece of paper and then pass around for others to read. Dylan has done some of this, but his best work — the work we love him for — is sung. The experience of sitting alone in silence, reading, is the essence of literature, and this isn't where Bob has made his contribution.

Picasso didn't win the Nobel Prize for literature either, but not because he didn't "deserve" it — he just didn't write literature. Probably, there should be another category of Nobel Prize that gives other kinds of artists their due, but at present, there just isn't. If only there were a Minnesota State Lyricist ... or Mime ...

And so (remembering that brevity is what I love most about poetry), I'm afraid I have to vote for my own misery — more accolades for the poet responsible for Iron John, another snub to the lyricist responsible for Idiot Wind and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

 

Editor's Note: In addition to the comments below, here's a discussion on the subject.

 

Comments

Stan Denski

When the Nobel is awarded to a playwright, as it has been on more than a few occasions, it is awarded to someone whose work is only brought to life through performance. It is unthinkable that the Nobel would go to a writer whose plays had never been performed. No. Recognizing Dylan simply recognizes that someone had managed to lift this popular form up high enough to merit inclusion in the same category as writers and past prize winners like Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck and Winston Churchill, something that, in my opinion, a case can be made for. Suggesting (and you don't but I have heard others who do) that recognizing Dylan would "open the gates" and one day Elton John and Lionel Ritchie would also win is refuted by the simple fact that it's been possible to award the prize to Faulkner for example without also giving one to Steven King, or to Eliot and not to Rod McKuen.

The best argument I've heard in Dylan's favor is simply that he has created a body of work across a half century that now inhabits the very atmosphere of everyday life and language more than anyone since Kipling.

Come on, change your vote.

ANGEL URIARTE

Well, yes, ok, but then also, a poet is so if he lives the life of a poet....and what kind of life has and is bob living? Isnt it the life of a poet?

And , didnt bob said: I,m a poet but dont blow it?

Javier Usoz

Very sugesting and well founded text. But I am not agree with the limited vision of literature inside this sentence: "The experience of sitting alone in silence, reading, is the essence of literature". I think that Pirandello, for exemple, has made a great contribution to literature. The spanish words of Don Quixote were written to be recited, they are part of an oral tradition, and when you read them in the silence of a library, you suddenly need to give them life and meaning with the voice. Greetings from Spain y apologies for my so poor English,
Javier Usoz

Velma Lashbrook

For a Dylan fan, you are amazingly rigid in your definition of poetry. Dylan expanded the boundaries of folk, rock 'n roll, country, gospel, and blues music. Why can't he also expand our boundaries on poetry? It's happened before. If Dylan's work doesn't qualify, I don't know what peotry is.

Ralph Hitchens

No telling how far this trend might go. I detest the rap music that my daughters listen to, but was curious enough to investigate the life & times of Eminem, even saw "8 Mile." Can't stand to listen to his "music" but I have to admit, the man is a genuine poet. Laureate of Michigan, maybe?

Andy

I've always thought that the music and Dylan's delivery of lines was a little something like stage directions in a play. {Tenderly} or {With great anger}, etc. They cannot be separated from the words.

I agree with the distinction between poet and lyricist; vastly different forms. However, I do believe that a lyricist should be able to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Tim Volem

Excellent essay. But there are many rooms in the mansion, and always room for variations. Hiphop is poetry, just like the blues, and yeah, let's include Eminem among the 'sotans... If drama is literature, so is singing. Orpheus established the tunesmith tradition, Dylan continues it. Professor Christopher Ricks considers him right up there with Keats and Eliot. Dylan is de facto already in the canon. A guy can fly fish in the heart of Stockholm; a committee could acknowledge Dulan in th same place. He should be nominated to wear the Minnesota garland, for sure, that guy from way up on the borderline. He's as bright as any sun.

Brides' Confessor

Just one question? Do you think the same argumentations apply to Leonard Cohen? Is he a lyricist or a genuine poet?

Greetings from Spain

Juan Cla

D.  Elliot

Bob Dylan as poet laureate is a little off to me. Correct, Dylan probably wouldn't accept. That would be opposite of Dylan's character. In interviews that I have seen, Dylan has always described himself as undefined, not a poet nor a song writer, just Bob Dylan. He does what he does. Let's be honest, Dylan can't sing worth a shit, but he can write songs. Though he can't sing well, I believe his voice adds to the flavor of his lyrics. But, who is to tell Dylan that he can't accept if chosen? It wouldn't make me stop listening to his music if was a laureate. I think Dylan has received much due credit for his work (Grammy - Time out of Mind among many other awards across the world). An artist is not truly respected until he/she is dead.

Private Beach

Through most of its history, when the majority of people were illiterate, poetry was an oral tradition, closely related to singing. The idea that its essence lies in reading it in solitude is very recent.

Furthermore, throughout history, poems have been set to song - are Browning, Tennyson, Wilhelm Müller and (yes) Leonard Cohen somehow less authentic poets because their poems can be sung?

Greg

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

I quietly sit and read that. It resonates as beautifully as it does from a speaker.

Maria L.

Every piece of literature that has made a writer or a playwright win the Nobel prize is not because the work can be read in a silent library, or because it was written in a bohemian environment. It is because people can relate to it so much as to feel the need to be connected to it some way or another. Learning phrases, dialogues, even behaving like a character. The writer, poet, playwright has had the excellence of portraying something others have not achieved, or have not been recognized with a Nobel for it. They have portrayed the essence of the society, the essence of life, the essence of a moment, a reality, even if the work is fictional (every artist bases its work on his/her experience; fictional means the writer considers it cannot be real to others as a whole, though some parts, indeed, can).
Bob Dylan has made exactly what I have described. There are not so many interacting characters in his songs, but he portrays everything with such vividness; such accuracy. There is an aesthetic reaction when one reads his lyrics, the same one that many can experience when reading Garcia Marquez, Saul Bellow, Steinbeck, Neruda...
It is not how the work is placed, or how it is transmitted. It is the very fact that humans can relate to it; that humans can be so fond of it as to consider it part of literature, or what particulars they consider literature. If someone is to ask me what works are part of my daily literary breaks, I would say Dylan and his lyrics. Quick and, like reading hard core OP-Eds, makes my day with the sincerity the songs seem to be built upon. If that does not deserve a Nobel prize, I do not know why others could.

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