I Blow It For Ya Free


People are “dissenting.”

Problem 1: He writes songs. It is true that the work of parsing arresting imagery, intricate syntax, subtle characterizations, rich and ambiguous observations, and narratives with difficult chronologies is hard enough when the voices of the text occur in the silence of your own reading. But when your attention to characterizations, imagery, and so on, is also snared by rhyme and melody, you learn to be a different kind of reader.  In the decades since Dylan’s songs have moved and enchanted people with these qualities, good books have been written on the work of learning to listen as a reader.  I’d like to recommend the ones that have served me well and should be helpful to anyone curious about what “new poetic expression” might feel like to a listener attending deeply to musical language. First, let’s hope the Nobel motivates someone to reissue Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature, the 1982 publication of her 1978 PhD thesis. She takes on the challenge of describing Dylan’s songs as a synthesis of language and music into a new prosody. Other studies that can  enrich your listening-as-reader are Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Hinchey’s Like a Complete Unknown, Aidan Day’s Jokerman, Wilfrid Mellers’ Darker Shade of Pale, John Gibbens’ The Nightingale’s Code,  and the by now quite familiar Dylan’s Visions of Sin, by Christoper Ricks.

Problem 2: He’s already overserved in two regards. Dylan has enjoyed more accolades and awards than almost any other living artist. And Dylan is an utter First-Worlder, a man born middle-class and American, who sings and writes in English in a commercial, popular genre. His award does no justice to the Nobel’s global cultural mission. The Nobel’s website provides this brief mission statement for the literature prize, “…one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”  The award seems to be need-blind.

Problem 3: The Nobel Prize matters. In a moral way.  There are comparisons to Sartre. Now, here is where fans have an advantage. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the distance between right and wrong, the difference between righteousness and vanity, what kind of pressure makes your conscience explode, and whether keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within is authentic virtue. Dylan gives a person an opportunity for moral reflection on every one of his records. My own motto is “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,”  which I translate as beware of asking other people to be avatars of my conscience.  If I want more readers for more books by more marginalized voices, there are many things I can do as a teacher, writer, or activist  to make this happen, instead of asking the Nobel committee to do it for me. If I think, as Sartre did, that the Nobel Prize institutionalizes writers, then I shall refuse the award when its conferral threatens to institutionalize me.

So bottoms up to us. Like I say, we’ll get more out of this than Dylan will, or needs, or wants.



Drinking White Rum In A Portugal Bar

I picked that subject line because I think it’s always described  the one moment of pure happiness in Mr. Dylan’s oeuvre of “new poetic expressions,”  as it was described hours ago by Sara Danius, a friend I never knew I had. And we’re all in that Portugal bar today.

And the mountain-tops that freeze,

Bow themselves when he did sing

I didn’t expect that he would ever win, and I developed a smartly deconstructive sour grapes attitude towards the Nobel: awards exist to honor the award-givers; no category of art can do justice to the sheer range of his singularities; the Nobel glorifies marginalized voices in a sanctimonious ritual of self-aggrandizing Democracy. The question for me has always been, does the Nobel deserve Bob Dylan?

I hadn’t expected it to feel this good, I admit.  I keep crying. We’ve been handed a gold-trimmed ticket, is how I see it. Where are people talking about Shakespeare’s life forms? Keats’ prosody? Milton’s and Dante’s new myths from old cloth? Where are people talking about whether poetry can face down any void without filling it up with lies? I want Bob Dylan in all these conversations–any conversation about art, meaning, beauty, lies, the opposite of lies. Although he’s been in these conversations for decades,  this big medal will get him in more of them, and that’s something I want.

Listen to Hard Rain, Mama You’ve Been on My Mind, Highway 61 Revisited, I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine, Tangled Up in Blue, Gotta Serve Somebody, Not Dark Yet, Ain’t Talkin’, Tempest–no, of course you’d need a creature inhabiting more than three dimensions to design the wreath that could fit around just these nine songs. No Nobel committee could have anticipated that one person would write One Too Many Mornings and Scarlet Town. I thank the committee for acknowledging  this life’s work that’s been right under its nose all these years. He doesn’t need you, but plenty of us are grateful for this gift–it will come in handy.



(And condolences to Philip Roth. I’ve bored people for years by saying repeatedly that Highlands is an entire Philip Roth novel in sixteen minutes. With a melody. And subtle and witty rhymes.  And I am right. And Bob wins.)