Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature! How can I not be happy? I, and pretty much everyone else I know, adore him. I always have.
When I was about sixteen or seventeen, my father asked me who I thought the greatest living American poet was. I said: Bob Dylan. This didn’t sit well with my dad. Bob Dylan wrote lyrics, he insisted, not poetry.
It’s quite touching to remember from this remove that my dad cared about the question, and thought I might know the answer. It’s not the answer I’d give today—in fact, I don’t even ask that kind of question. But this certainly bolsters my teenage argument!
I had a quote from Dylan next to my yearbook photograph, from “Desolation Row:”
They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
What on earth did this mean to me? How did it communicate that I hated high school, the war in Viet Nam, and the suburbs? It didn’t. It was surreal and mysterious. It sounded great. It had fabulous imagery. And today I’m surprised at how cheery the subtext was—I actually felt a circus was in town. Or if not in Englewood, New Jersey—then in poetry.
I’m not one to quibble about who should win the Nobel Prize. Certainly no one has asked me! Let me just say that sometimes I absent mindedly hum a Dylan song and I can’t remember if it is a traditional Anglo-Irish or Appalachian ballad or his. In that way he is the quintessential troubadour. I think of Dylan lyrics when I’m angry or frighted or celebrating or feeling goofy. He is in my poetic brain even more than Shakespeare or the Bible. I sing “Mighty Quinn” when I’m happy. I sing “Too Much of Nothing” when I feel the pull of the universe’s vastness.
There is an early time for poetry in most cultures where it is inseparable from music. Sappho’s work was set to music—no one says she wasn’t a poet. The archaic Chinese Book of Songs was also…songs, although the lyrics remain without the music. The same is true of the Hebrew psalms. I’ve never heard any of this work criticized for not being poetry. In Dylan’s case, we have both. I won’t worry if Bob Dylan is writing folk music or rock and roll or poetry. I’m too happy. I think I’ll start singing “Mighty Quinn.”