I Dreamed I Saw Bob Dylan: On An American Prophet
by Ed Simon
There is no living American poet who deserves the characterization of being a prophet more than Bob Dylan. Both a product of his land and his land a product of him, Dylan the prophet has been Jeremiah by the rivers of Babylon, blind Milton dictating his verse, and William Blake opening the doors of perception. As a poet and prophet he has no ultimate muse or Lord, save for the collective American vernacular, which he gladly appropriated or stole from, in that process of cultural hybridization which is necessary to produce anything new or true. Robert Zimmerman, the good Jewish boy from Minnesota, was anointed by Woody Guthrie while on the road to the Village, where he borrowed the name of a Celtic bard and become Dylan. Along the way he filched from the blues, Scots-Irish folk music, country and western, rag-time, rock and roll, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Uncle Walt, and the rest of what Greil Marcus astutely calls “that old, weird America.” That Dylan is a mercurial character is an observation made so often that it has become trite – yet it is also true.
And in that stations of the cross by which those in the sect of Dylan mark their devotion – from the Gaslight on MacDougal, to plugging in at Newport, going electric at the Royal Albert Hall, crashing his motorcycle at Woodstock, finding Jesus and then losing him again – there is now a new station on that Via Crucis. There was shock last week when it was announced that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, an unprecedented award for a pop musician. That shock has continued into this week, when in true Dylan fashion, calling forth nothing so much as the (faux?) belligerent press conferences as recorded in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic Dont Look Back, Mr. Zimmerman has yet to return the Swedish Academy’s phone calls. So far, the only comment that Dylan seems to have had (other than one obligatory social media announcement put out by his publicist no doubt) is the addition of an obscure Sinatra tune entitled “Why Try To Change Me Now?” into his concert rotation.
Confusion and cynicism were certainly on ample display, as was genuine and legitimate criticism. Stephen Metcalf at Slate writes that “Bob Dylan is a musician and not a poet… You don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, as they say, and if you want poetry, you don’t go to Bob Dylan,” to which I would reply that psalms have always been songs, and that even Orpheus carried a lyre. Anna North at The New York Times fairly and humanely writes that “Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.” I do not agree with her assessment.
While acknowledging that the Nobel Prize is always contingent, politicized, subjective, and influenced by forces far beyond objective aesthetic criteria (whatever those are), the committee accomplished one important thing in awarding Dylan the prize. They’ve somehow gotten seemingly everyone in the press and on social media talking about what literature is, and what deserves to have laurels bestowed. But you don’t need Cultural Studies with its democratization of the text, or high modernism with its fragments shored against our ruins, to see in poetry in music. After all, David sung his compositions in the Temple, he had no need of the white page or the printing press. Whether Dylan is “literature” or not (and I think the word “literature” can be as mercurial as Mr. Zimmerman’s identity), the question alone has always been one of the driving issues of culture, and that a committee of ossified old Swedes has us talking about it on Facebook is notable enough. There are certainly legitimate issues to ask about questions of genre and influence, the definition of poetry, and the passing over of important marginalized voices. That those conversations are happening on internet threads and on editorial pages and not just in graduate seminar rooms is an unmitigated good.
But what was I saying again? Oh, right, that Dylan is not just a poet, but a prophet (see, I can one up even the Noble committee!). Certainly, few pop stars, and probably none still living (with the possible exception of Leonard Cohen) approach that prophetic mode which Milton, Whitman, Blake, and Ginsberg composed in. Listen to a few verses of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” especially during this season, and tell me that you don’t hear a voice in the wilderness foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction. Taking a seventeenth-century ballad from the English border country, and marrying it to American nuclear paranoia, Dylan sang of a “black branch with blood that kept dripping,” and “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” all prophetic visions from “the depths of the deepest black forest.” Or on “Desolation Row,” one of his unmitigated masterpieces, when in the first sentence he alludes to Moloch’s inferno where both slavery and the Shoah originated, singing “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown.”
Langston Hughes, himself the author of immaculate lyrics firmly based in the oral and musical tradition of the African American twelve-bar blues, wrote “I, too, sing America,” for America has always been a thing to sing, “essentially the greatest poem” as Uncle Walt said, and perhaps the greatest of songs, too. Whitman declared that, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” and Dylan supplied a few hundred verses to that song. In Dylan, with his varied, quicksilver reinventions, we have the Whitmanesque reconciling of contradictions. Dylan is a trickster god, just like the country that was his father, and in his lyrics and music there is the marriage of dynamic east coast with stolid Midwest, agrarian South with urban North, reactionary conservative and transgressive radical, Judaism and Christianity, white and black. Despite his dalliances with the Judaism of his youth when he was “Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,” the New Left of the ‘60s, or the born again evangelical Christianity of the ‘70s, at the end, the source of all of Dylan’s poetry is his God, and the name of that God is America, even if he dreamt that he saw St. Augustine along the way.
Because when I say that Dylan is an American prophet, that’s precisely what I mean, and I argue that the Noble committee’s awarding of the prize to such an unconventional nominee is an acknowledgement of a particularly American genius for religion. Harold Bloom, always hewing close to the (not inaccurate) principle that it is better to be interesting than it is to be right, claimed in his 1991 The American Religion that over the course of two centuries the United States developed an idiosyncratic, heterodox, heretical, Gnostic faith which long ago replaced Protestant Christianity as the authentic religion of the nation. He writes that, “We are a very religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of one quest, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath in us that we are convinced goes back to before the creation.”
What does that describe more than the cycles of continual creation and destruction which Dylan creatively engages, the constant self-invention, the sin and the redemption? If we’re rugged individualists in anything, it’s in forging our own religions, lest we be enslaved by those of another man’s. Dylan simply bootstrapped his way into a new scripture. Bloom explains that the “American self is not the Adam of Genesis but is a more primordial Adam, a man before there were men or women. Higher and earlier than the angels, this true Adam is as old as God, older than the Bible, and is free of time, unstained by mortality. Whatever the social or political consequences of this vision, its imaginative strength is extraordinary.” Extraordinary indeed! Or, as the titular character from the Coen Brothers Dylanesque homage Inside Llewellyn Davis put it, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
Finally, there is the poetry itself. The strangely melancholic amphetamine jitters, awe, and reverence of “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” The broadsheet, fairy-tale imagery of “She can take the dark out of the nighttime/ And paint the daytime black.” The intimations of mortality and apocalypse in “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day… Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.” The psychotic intensity and honesty of “Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you/It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.” The prophetic injunction to justice in “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears/Take the rag away from your face/Now ain’t the time for your tears.” The understated, ironic pain in “Most of the time/I’m clear focused all around… I don’t even notice she’s gone/Most of the time.” And yes, the bulk of the pathos in that last line, or any of a dozen of his, or a hundred of them, is in the performance, the way he uncertainly pauses after what seems a definitive declaration only to mitigate it by wryly telling us that the previous statement is true only “most of the time.” The collected lyrics of Bob Dylan are magnificent, but it’s true that organized on the page they do not match the technical acumen in prosody one sees in an Auden, Stevens, or Eliot. But, if rhythm, rhyme, enjambment, end-stopping and so on are aspects of the poet’s trade, there is no reason why performance can’t be either, for poetry was always sung before it was ever read (indeed as drama is meant to be acted). Caedmon’s hymn reached the ears of his fellow monks before it was ever scratched into goat-skin.
No less a tweedy old critic than the Miltonist Christopher Ricks (controversially) claimed that ”The case for denying Dylan the title of poet could not summarily, if at all, be made good by any open-minded close attention to the words and his ways with them,” and last week the Nobel committee agreed with that (even if maybe Dylan himself didn’t). What they acknowledged was that in the body of Dylan’s poetic work is a reservoir of the beautiful American vernacular, Whitman’s “tongues of nations,” an expansive, large, democratic vocabulary capable of expressing those axioms of faith which were delivered among the nations of this land. In recognizing the corpus of his songs as not just literature, but great literature, it took an institution of foreign ears and foreign eyes to demonstrate to Americans, in this, our season of ugly nativism, that there are alternative and expansive ways of conceiving our nationality. For that, Dylan is a prophet and a poet, whether you see fit to grant him an arbitrary award or not.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.