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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.