Congratulations, Bob Dylan. I Guess.
I guess I should celebrate how Dylan’s win shows us how cultural categories are made to be broken down, as old forms (and even entire art disciplines) synthesize and make new art that transforms us. As we’ve seen in just the last decade, the barriers between fiction and nonfiction strategies have blurred, and poetry has cross-fertilized with the essay, with rap, and with other forms to create new, necessary, and nervy forms of art-life. And even if Dylan’s Nobel is a surprise, why shouldn’t we start more seriously considering song lyrics as a literature, as the form of poetry that leads us back to some core truths about how poetry began?
And I guess it doesn’t matter that Dylan perhaps never considered himself a poet, at least not the way it’s understood in the West today. He’s not been part of that community. And that shouldn’t matter, right? The Nobel recognizes quality and impact, not gold- star community participation or literary context. Still, I do wish Dylan had shown up at my poetry reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe last May.
I guess I need to set aside the fact that Dylan’s song lyrics have not been considered poetry by many people who care about poetry and who, like me, have made a life from it. For many of us page-based poets, Dylan writes lyrics, terrific lyrics, words that were vital to an entire era of the 1960s and 1970s, words brought to life by music. Yet Dylan’s songs has indeed been taken seriously by many literary scholars. I will need to go back to his lyrics and see what I can find there, when infused in his music and plainly on the page.
Speaking as a poet whose poems live primarily on the page, when I do read many of Dylan’s lyrics, especially for songs for which I don’t already have a melody in my head, I cringe. The lines get singsong; the rhymes thud; the words have a curious belligerence to them that bugs me. Lines and stanzas make no apparent sense; they can lack coherent syntax; some are as resistant to sense as anything you’d find in the most esoteric poem. The sentiments can seem strikingly superficial. I want the lyrics to be leavened by music, by Dylan’s passion and irksome but human twang. Maybe I would have felt the same about the troubadours, or about Sappho strumming her lyre. I know I feel this way about Sondheim. (Don’t get me started.)
I do believe poetry is music, that it should be sung as well as read. As a teacher of poets, I emphasize that poetry began as an oral and aural art, that it remains one, that we should read and discuss poems like a tribe sharing its stories around a campfire which, in modern times, we must necessarily imagine. In my poetry workshops, we speak our poems aloud again and again — often even before reading them on the page. In my own private poem-reading — and in my own poem-writing — I speak poems all the time. Sometimes, that is the only way I can apprehend them. I need to inhabit poems with breath. Sing them.
Many professional poets, probably a majority, are surprised and glad Dylan won; they view him as an important artist, one who has had vital impact on modern culture and on their own lives and art. No poet I know — even those who have had genuine concerns about what Dylan’s win means for how we define literature — has denigrated Dylan’s art. If they try to be funny about it (“Joni was robbed!”), it’s not at Dylan’s expense, but is directed instead at the motives and criteria of the Nobel Committee.
Yet with the news of the Nobel decision, many people (non-poets, mostly, but often prose writers or arts and culture workers) seem vindicated that, finally, an artist they understand and appreciate has been trumpeted as a poet. Even as they celebrate Dylan, they seem to be savoring a corroborating diss of a genre that they feel dismisses them, one that intimidates them, and from which they feel estranged.
This deep disdain bothers me. I had a lifetime of irksome encounters with people who say, “Oh, you’re a poet? Hey, Bob Dylan — isn’t he really the greatest poet of them all? Right up there with Leonard Cohen?”
Remarks like this, even when they are an earnest attempt to connect with me around poetry, usually come from folks who eschew page-based poetry or spoken word, and who haven’t ever cracked open a book by Billy Collins, John Ashbery, or Louise Gluck, or darkened of the door of a poetry reading. Dylan himself has read poetry, at least as a young man, including the young person’s romantic favorites Dylan Thomas (from whom he took his name) and Arthur Rimbaud, and the orotund Carl Sandberg.
Not all non-poet people who cheer Dylan’s award respond to page-based poetry with this kind of suspicion and disregard. There are indeed many non-poets (prose writers, screen/stage writers, and regular folk) who know contemporary poetry, value it, and applaud Dylan’s win. These people, many of them my friends, have done the hard and admirable work of engaging with poetry, even when it seems to resist their advances, as it so often does. I value their opinions particularly because they arise from a poetic and cultural context.
But there have been many people, including many cultured people, who have used Dylan’s Nobel as a chance to deride and denigrate poets and poetry in general. Often they are commenting on contemporary poetry in ways that suggest that they haven’t truly given it a chance, and yet now they feel they have license to express dismissal and even contempt for an entire art form — and for the people who give their lives to it.
That hurts me. Quite often when I come out to someone as a poet — and it is a coming out — the response I get is a wry defensive joke, a shrug, a pulling back. They don’t need to mention Dylan to do it. Why, they ask or imply, would I labor so hard to do something so small, so minor and effete? Shouldn’t I at least write a novel?
As a stranger told me to my face, paraphrasing the poet Don Marquis, “Isn’t publishing a book of poems like throwing a rose petal in the Grand Canyon and listening for an echo?”
Yes, but it’s my rose petal. And maybe if you listened for it too, you’d hear an echo. That would be two people hearing an echo, and that would be a start.
Poetry can indeed be intimidating, estranging, exclusionary. Poets can presume too much, push people away, write poems primarily for other poets. Of course, poets must write what must write; not all of us are destined to be Dylan with an MFA. But I am the son of an Episcopal priest; when it comes to poetry, I have an evangelizing streak. I’m also the son of a book editor, and a book editor myself; I think in terms of what readers need from a work, and how authors — without pandering to their audience, diminishing their art, or denying their own essential warp and woof — can reach those readers.
For those of us committed to poetry, Dylan’s award is a direct challenge. It summons us to a renewed recognition that to have cultural impact and import — for our art form to thrive or even survive — we need readers — listeners — and we need to do a better job of finding them. I hope we do the evangelism to find those readers and listeners.
But potential listeners and readers also need to unharden their hearts to poetry. “To have great poets, there must be great audiences,” said Walt Whitman, another bard who approached poetry from the outside and became perpetually vital by doing so. If you haven’t read Whitman, please do. Dylan did.
I want a rich, complex, resonant, uncompromising poetry that is accessible to people willing to pay attention. I hope that can be a positive feedback loop, as poets and readers relate more and more. Of course, just as I’m not going to harangue people to read poetry, I am not going to tell poets what to write; some will compose poetry that is reflexive and hermetic, and related most directly to issues of art itself, similar to the way that, in the nonverbal arts, certain modern artists make paintings and some composers today write music. But as we are told by Wallace Stevens — that supremely “insular” poet who happened to have saved my life when I discovered him — the poet’s role “is to help people live their lives.”
There are hundreds of poets out there, and more every year, whose words will change your life — and change our times. Those poets are in your very own ZIP code! Increasingly in the last decade, the vision of poetry of which Dylan is a part — the world of the lyric artist singing to listeners — is already manifesting itself in poetry, on the page and beyond. These days, the old divisions between page-based and performed poetry seem quaint, as do the supposed walls between “high” and “low” art, and the barriers among writing genres. They are just so late-twentieth century.
Most important, like Dylan himself (at least in certain of his manifestations), today’s poets are dismissing the dreary and dopey question of whether one can do good politically or socially engaged writing and still be a lyric artist. With often-divergent aesthetics, they are embracing what I call “radical content” — the poetry that is inspired not by formal inventions or language strategies alone, but by a new world of subjects that take poets away from their desks and into the streets to explore directly entire realms that once considered not the purview of poetry: politics, the environment, race, sexuality, gender, and science. Writing with radical content will lead to the creation of new, hybrid, cross-pollinated forms — forms that might involve music, film, screens, interactive text creation, and otherwise break down our barriers to tell us new and necessary things. Dylan, along with myriad other poets, point us to that highway.
Listen to the whistle blowing: in today’s versions of Dylan’s Greenwich Village coffeehouse, poets are singing out loud and strong, writing work that promises to revolutionize us. Can we respect them and open our ears deep to them? Can you smell the coffee brewing? The times, they are a-changin’.