Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism

Let’s get past the stupid Nobel debates: Dylan is not just a great poet, but a prophet whose genius can sustain us

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism
Donald Trump; Bob Dylan (Credit: AP/Getty/Ben Stansall/Salon)

Two weeks ago, Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize in person; true to form, he did so not at the December ceremony (where Patti Smith performed in his stead), but during a previously scheduled tour of Stockholm. He has yet to deliver, on tape or in person, the acceptance speech that is a precondition for the prize money. When he won the prize it was just before the November election, and now we’re a few months into the unfolding disaster. Which makes you wonder: Does the Nobel Prize committee know more about us than we know about ourselves?

This may quite possibly be the best Nobel Prize choice ever for literature, right up there with the recognition of William Faulkner. It has been given to the right person at the right time, as the academy has made an urgent intervention into the vexing question of just what literature is, at a political moment when demagoguery is making a mockery of language.

Writers and critics know that nearly all the greatest writers of the past century — and we know who they are — failed to get the award. The Nobel for literature is most helpful when it brings someone deserving to the global audience’s attention. Such was the case with Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk; he was already at a young age a world-class author, but the award gave him millions of new readers. And though Dylan has been a songwriter’s songwriter, or musician’s musician, for 55 years, there couldn’t be a better time than now for his poetry of prophecy to soak through to everyone’s consciousness.

Perhaps millennials in pursuit of the latest musical illusion will seek out the timeless instead, in Dylan’s music, which should lead them back to the abiding sources of American music: the origins of the blues tradition, for example, in such singers as Charley Patton or Skip James, or Blind Willie McTell, about whom Dylan recorded a memorable song in the early 1980s, or later Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, all acknowledged influences on Dylan, whom he transformed and reworked in his own idiom.

Dylan receiving the award at this point in time is a reminder for us to seek the ultimate sources of poetry — and I certainly consider the blues as poetry of the highest order — rather than be distracted by the next vulgarization that comes along.

Purity, of the most extreme degree, to the point that it is prophecy, is what Dylan manifested, particularly in his peak 1962–1966 period, which I think is unparalleled in the history of music for its sheer genius, its fecundity and its deep tapping of the mystical poetic roots, all of which defy comprehension as to how it could have come about in such a short period of time.

Is Dylan a poet? To me, the question is, is Dylan the 20th century’s Arthur Rimbaud? Or Keats or Shelley? Or Yeats? Those are the valid comparisons for me, not whether he is a poet.

The Nobel academy is also recognizing, as it failed to do when the time was right, the entire Beat tradition, into which Dylan flows and which flows into Dylan. Remember that Allen Ginsberg was more Bob Dylan’s acolyte than the other way around. All of the Beats alive at the time of Dylan’s peak productivity in the early 1960s were keen to associate themselves with him, and for good reason. If Beat poetry is poetry — and I suppose some academicists would question even that — then Dylan was its purest, most acute, most immortal manifestation.

I would make the same connection with folk music, too. There is a long tradition of American folk music, almost necessarily associated with the left, or rather programmatic left causes, that Dylan tapped into and revived and intensified, put into a language of pop music, and later rock and roll, or folk-rock or whatever you want to call it, an endeavor that had eluded the so-called “purist” exponents of folk music.

The question of authenticity is front and center in any evaluation of Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. He was always secretive and still is, even in a supposedly tell-all work like “Chronicles: Volume One“ (2004) — about his origins as a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, preferring to make up fabulous tales about himself when he first arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, intent on becoming a “music star.” Robert Allen Zimmerman liked to claim to reporters then that he didn’t know his parents, that he had worked in carnivals around the country, that he had traveled everywhere as a hobo on freight trains — and in that era of impromptu reinvention, it was all taken in good spirit.

For that matter, Woody Guthrie, to whom Dylan rigorously dedicated himself early on, arguably mastering Guthrie’s oeuvre better than the master, was himself an act. A creation of the big cities, tutored by academic folklore experts, speaking for the “folk”? But he is as authentic as they come, right? Or Pete Seeger, how about him? Whenever you look behind any artist claiming to be authentic, you find the same story of invention, duplication, homage, unreality and indecipherability. Dylan, being perhaps the most lacerating of all the modern wordsmiths, represents these traits in the most intense manner.

Like the best poets or prophets, he is unknowable — to this day.

The 1967 movie “Dont Look Back — D.A. Pennebaker’s pathbreaking cinéma vérité record of Dylan’s 1965 English tour — remains the most astute example of its genre. Take a look at it to decide for yourself the issue of Dylan’s authenticity as poet, or prophet.

To me, Dylan’s dealings with the two journalists he meets in the film — the first of whom he treats in a Socratic or Wittgensteinian manner, questioning the very definition of such basic concepts as friendship or identity, and the second a Time magazine reporter Dylan interrogates about what is news (or fake news) — are particularly emblematic of the degree to which he was not a fake. He was immersed so deeply in all the intellectual currents of his time, in a purely intuitive manner — and this is where the obvious comparison with Rimbaud comes in — that he didn’t have the luxury to worry about such distinctions as fake or authentic, or to wonder about how he was learning what he was learning.

He acted a little put upon in that movie, but you can also sense that his degree of poetic intensity — poetry defining the person and persona of the artist, not just as a part-time or semi-habitual intellectual endeavor — couldn’t possibly be kept up for long, as was the case with Jesus, for example, and that the end was near.

It is said that Dylan’s first long-term girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, taught him much about poetry — and art and literature and radical politics — and that later Allen Ginsberg, especially after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, provided him with further reading material. But these are just ex post facto biographical explanations that don’t tell us much about where his poetry came from.

The motorcycle accident, oh yes. That was the dividing line, in 1966, in rural Woodstock, New York, after which the poetry and the music ceased to be what they were before the accident. I believe that, as any prophet-poet in his condition would have done, he terminated his prophecy at that point. The accident probably wasn’t serious after all. But Dylan retreated, didn’t tour for another eight years, and tried to rediscover himself, going back to the roots. Later, in his explicitly “spiritual” manifestations — the avowed Christianity, for example, or the reclaimed Jewish heritage — he tried to capture the spirit that had moved him, but the gift of prophecy had left him.

Of course, he had already committed the ultimate no-no, as far as folk purists were concerned, by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but now, after trying the amplified rock and roll sound, he went back to the basics, consciously limiting the sound in “The Basement Tapes“ that eventually came out as a result of work he did in 1967 in Woodstock, removed from the public eye. He didn’t release this work at the time, instead trying on different modes, with a brilliant reinvention of the pastoral in “Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait“ and “New Morning,” work that I find increasingly meaningful with the passage of time.

How great his poetry and music were in the 1962–1966 period can be understood by the fact that Dylan himself was never able to approach his climax, despite half a century of relentlessly trying.

I’ve been diligently exploring album after album of the post-motorcycle accident era, and they’re all gems in their own way, but Dylan himself recognizes that he could never again reproduce the magic of 1962–1966, a period that includes “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited“ and “Blonde on Blonde.”

Weary of hewing to expectations, he wanted to terminate, also, any programmatic association with the progressive/alternative/leftist folkies, having mastered their tradition quickly, and having decided to move on.

He had to move along; the direction his poetry was dictating compelled him to. Can we imagine “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as an acoustic song? But “To Ramona” we can, and must. He had soaked it all up, the gentle radicalness of Joan Baez, the straight talk of Woody Guthrie, the surreal imagistic prolificity of Allen Ginsberg, incorporated it all in his poetry, and made something entirely new out of it in that climactic period, and then almost as quickly as he’d done it, he ended it and moved on. Isn’t that the way of all prophets?

His so-called Never Ending Tour, consisting of thousands of concerts since the late 1980s, still with no end in sight, seems to me a prophet’s impossible search for what he was and what he has lost, though he doesn’t necessarily want it back. In the process he has been discovering himself and his songs anew for the last four decades, without any hope of ultimate success. Long ago, he lost his “voice” — literally.

It has been his greatest sacrifice, I think, this never-ending tour, which fueled the bootleg industry, and in which every Dylan song is a work in progress, different each time, coming across as provisional poetry for our time that refuses to let us see poetry as fixed words with fixed meanings. Dylan was as postmodernist as Charles Olson, the never-ending tour his expressive manifesto of poetry as contingent and hopelessly derivative and unself-sufficing.

He distilled the best of our literary and artistic values in that period of profound self-questioning in American culture — we have been going downhill in every respect since then — and this is another reason why the Nobel committee’s recognition of him at this time is an important reminder of what was best about America (all of which is rapidly dying, as even Dylan will cease to be in a short while). What was best about us was our ingrained quality of doubt toward highfalutin theories and our conviction in the decency of the common man, as evident in Thomas Jefferson as in Mark Twain. This has become all the more important at a time when demagogic manipulation has taken us a long way from our founding ideal of democracy as a practice of stubborn skepticism of — well, of bullshit.

There is no better antidote for the box we’ve put ourselves in, in this age of distorted politics, than any of Dylan’s music of that early period. The Nobel committee is also implying, by overlooking the “literary” names that are perennially mentioned as American contenders, that we are not good enough in what we think of as the literary realm; we are too conformist there, and this too is a timely rejoinder to us, a reminder that the game may well be over for us.

But the question remains, is it poetry?

How can anyone listen to “Masters of War” or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and seriously ask this question?

I think that the New Critical approach taken by British critic Christopher Ricks — breaking down each Dylan song according to conventional matrices such as rhyming and alliteration and assonance — is a bit reductionist and naive. It misses the point about Dylan’s poetry.

Of course all the techniques are there, the whole poetic arsenal, and also tremendous fluidity with transitions, handling meter in a way suited to both poetry and music (that is, reading and singing), giving complex intellectual life to the linguistically simplified blues and folk and country traditions by way of exploiting modern(ist) techniques, and exploiting images and metaphors to merge the personal and the political in a way that few writers have been able to do.

That’s all there, without a doubt.

But is it still poetry if it’s not put to music? I suppose that is the underlying question that bugs those who resent Dylan getting the award. (In asking that question we are also, by the way, questioning whether drama is literature, because it too is enhanced by or is meant for performance. It’s a point Dylan noted by mentioning Shakespeare as literature in his Nobel acceptance speech.)

I would argue that Dylan writes his poetry in a way that takes full advantage of the potentialities of performance. We cannot say that poetry is only that which is purely restricted to the page. Poetry can be written to take advantage of the latent possibilities of delivery and performance and spectacle and music and everything else we can think of doing with it. And it is the better for it.

Conventional modern poets — William Blake and W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost aside — have had a very difficult time with certain things. How can a ballad, especially one dealing with tragedy, not succumb to the weight of its form, and succeed instead in building a transcendent argument by repetition, or accumulation, making the story larger than the sum of its content? This dilemma, actually, is true of all conventional or academic poetry. When it is written down as poetry, it often loses form and flexibility. To what extent can a poet magically endow it with a life that refuses to die, once it’s written?

That comes from prophecy, or the kind of youth that is immune to ordinary views of decline and mortality (hence Rimbaud and Keats and Dylan), a beautiful youth that delivers the best of our human spirit without knowing what it is doing. It can condemn without being whiny. It can fall in love without being naive. It can exit politics or love without being coy. That is a much higher form of poetry that breaking things down by New Criticism methodology will not explain.

Consider how in his early composition “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” Dylan is completely unafraid — and this must have taken an incomprehensible degree of unselfconsciousness — to indulge in a form of satire that he knows must lead back to himself. In that period he often wrote very long poems, unafraid of the risks in doing so.

The Death of Emmett Till” is another condemnation, like the even better “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which presents racial oppression without self-consciousness (he sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about the murder of Medgar Evers, in Mississippi along with Pete Seeger, and you can catch a glimpse of it in “Dont Look Back”). Perhaps this is why he needed what I would consider the crutch of folk music for a start, to convey his sense of the wrongness of things in a form that wouldn’t overwhelm him. His poetry contained the genre of folk music, rather than the other way around. Isn’t that amazing? But then, he was completely self-taught.

How is “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as short and concise a Dylan poem as we’ve ever seen, any less of a poem than the best that Hardy or Tennyson or Yeats wrote? The hinge, of course, is the “answer” that’s “blowin’ in the wind” — an answer Dylan has no intention of revealing.

Why does “Masters of War” not indulge in didacticism and pettiness, as is true of most political poetry, despite being a curse going back to a classical form? We might as well ask if the Bible is poetry. Or if the great religious scriptures of East and West rise to the level of poetry.

In “Masters of War” Dylan shows that he has complete mastery of the logic of the Bible, whatever his actual degree of study of it at the time may have been, because it’s what makes the curse work, it’s what elevates it to the highest degree of well-wishing (by naming sin) one could direct toward the enemies of humanity: “But there’s one thing I know/ Though I’m younger than you/ Even Jesus would never/ Forgive what you do.”

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” takes off from a well-known Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” but consider the layers of transformation when Dylan gets to work on it. With his insistent play on “my blue-eyed son” and “my darling young one,” it is perhaps his most tragic song, his most ideally executed song. I have no clue how he writes something like this (and then pitches it in his incomparably poignant voice, the most penetrative musical instrument of the late 20th century): “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,/ I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,/ I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,/ I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,/ I saw a white ladder all covered with water,/ I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,/ I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

It would take a petty bourgeois (f)rigidity of murderous proportions, a zombie commitment to academic poetry driven by mechanical identity politics and anti-humanistic neoliberalism, not to see the transcendent poetry in this. This is poetry that means business, it is written from the depths of the mystical soul whose origins no one can perceive, and it is presented with zero self-consciousness, both on the page and in the delivery, and it works!

He does compression, of the pressure of mortality, in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” in a way that makes it a poem of cozy friendship, exploding the sonnet of mortality, if you will, into something else altogether. A dream of mortality, we are led to think.

Has any poem-song of our time managed to be as inclusive of the shifting paradigms of change, as consistently progressive, as beholden to the long long view, as “The Times They Are A-Changin’? With simple words like “rattle” and “battle” he cuts out all the excess and superfluity of “poetry.” “Admit that the waters/ Around you have grown,” he starts, which is as powerful today as it was half a century ago.

How is “To Ramona” any lesser than the greatest of Keats’ songs of love — such as the elusive “La Belle Dame sans Merci”? Actually, Dylan does one better, by wanting to fortify Ramona — though that is ultimately her own job — against the illusions of the world, which is not interested in love: “But it grieves my heart, love,/ To see you tryin’ to be a part of/ A world that just don’t exist./ It’s all just a dream, babe.”

Later, in “I Want You,” perhaps the most beautiful love song of our time, Dylan opens up that fissure between the distracting world and the purity of love, in simplified language that refuses to look at anything but love. Compare the burdensome language used to describe distraction — “The guilty undertaker sighs,/ The lonesome organ grinder cries,/ The silver saxophones say I should refuse you” — with the simple purity of “Honey, I want you.” This is a playful dialectic that shows full awareness of the potential of poetry in explicating deep philosophical quandaries by the weight one places on words, by where and how one places them, by how one combines strength and lightness in the same compact space.

The brief lines, the staccato buildup, the rapid-fire listing of traps and illusions in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” make for as great a poem of keeping your head under while the capitalists are out to get you as has ever been written: “The man in the coon-skin cap/ In the big pen/ Wants eleven dollar bills/ You only got ten.” Now we’re dealing with Apollinaire, or Tristan Tzara, or Mayakovsky, in the plangent refusal to go along with conformity, in seeing the unreal behind the real, in arguing against formal education and formal manners.

This is true also of “Maggie’s Farm,” which he sings, in early recorded versions, with a laughter in his attitude that makes a mockery of work as a nationally sanctified enterprise, of discredited puritan aesthetics, that is as valid as Kerouac or Vonnegut or Bukowski.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” takes on the “discovery” of America itself; but which America? Dylan sings, “He said, ‘Let’s set up a fort/ And start buying the place with beads/ Just then this cop comes down the street/ Crazy as a loon/ He throw us all in jail/ For carryin’ harpoons.”

This is argumentative poetry that should be sung on all our streets, poetry that is fortified with music on the mind, with Dylan’s or any other wannabe prophet’s whine (or wine) in mind.

Mr. Tambourine Man” is very artful in splitting the poet’s persona from his poetry, in seeing the divided self, in alienating him from his alienation — as Charlie Chaplin did in the movies, or as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini were doing contemporaneously (Dylan loved Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player”), making of the artistry of connectivity the greatest alienation of all: “In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.// Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship,/ My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip.”

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is one of our most conclusive modern poems. It is so good that you know that the end for Dylan can’t be far off, because this level of prophetic poetry just can’t continue: “Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn/ Suicide remarks are torn/ From the fool’s gold mouthpiece/ The hollow horn plays wasted words.” Everything redundant about poetry, all of its wasteful tricks, has been done away with in this poem; its essence is pain, and because it is pure poetry, it does not come across as narcissistic, as none of his great poetry does. This alone sets Dylan apart from all postwar American poets.

He resorts to what I would call a surrealism not of cynical laughter but joyous present-mindedness when he considers his situation as an artist, or really a thinking person caught up in murderous capitalism, in “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/ Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/ Ain’t it hard when you discover that/ He really wasn’t where it’s at/ After he took from you everything he could steal.”

His poetic technique here illustrates, embodies, executes to perfection the “no direction home” ethos. It has been interpreted, this song-poem, as a revenge fantasy with particular entities in mind (as has “Positively 4th Street”), this one with perhaps the suicidal actress and model Edie Sedgwick as the target. But none of his poems of that era work at that reductionist level; they are all ultimately about himself, the fame and glory of being the prophet of his time preventing any narcissistic consciousness, which I find the most unbelievable thing about his poetry then.

Ballad of a Thin Man” reminds us of Ivan Illich and Herbert Marcuse and the great social theorists of the 1960s, who talked about how functioning amid capitalist conformity has reduced us to intellectual and psychological ciphers, the Mr. Joneses of the world having their throats handed back to them: “You’ve been with the professors/ And they’ve all liked your looks/ With great lawyers you have/ Discussed lepers and crooks/ You’ve been through all of / F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.”

His poetic technique here, in posing relentless direct questions, as is true of so much of his work then, exemplifies the thinness of our personalities: “Because something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is.” There is zero poetic “technique” involved in this line; yet it is as high a poetry as Li Po’s in capturing the essential hollowness of our situation.

He plays on “stoned” (in both the Biblical and countercultural sense), with a duality of meanings opening up because of the unresolved tension, in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Here, as in so many other poems, the repetition doesn’t come across as a lament seeking something as prosaic as a political solution, but becomes the summation of our tragic condition, as is true of all real knowledge: “They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave./ But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.”

Do I even need to talk about “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”? It is a bold reinterpretation of his own earlier songs in a wildly unpredictable surrealist landscape: “With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,/ And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,/ And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,/ Who among them do you think could resist you?”

Various women have been said to have been the intended subject of this poem — perhaps Joan Baez, perhaps Sara Lownds, Dylan’s first wife — but it sums up, better than any poetical venture of our era, what it means to maintain the mystery of one’s existence, its purity and innocence, in a time when everything militates against it. Our vision is enough to see it, is it not? Only poetry, only the song of poetry, cuts through to the indefinable essence of the beloved.

Here, Dylan reaches the peak of his mysticism, but despite the length of the song, so unusual for its time, there is nothing wasted. With each powerful metaphor — “your sheet metal memory of Cannery Row,” or “your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — he piles on his own inadequacy to deal with, on its own terms, the beauty of women, or the beauty of anything beautiful.

Each of Dylan’s masterpieces from his peak deserves an extended breakdown to understand what he is doing poetically, though of course I can’t do it here. But any poet today who wants to know the source of life in poetry can learn untold amounts from making the attempt.

Dylan lent intellectual substance to popular music for the first time, and he was the first to show that complex poetic forms could be commercially successful. Rock and roll was already moribund, and had become silly after its inspiration from the original blues, by the time Dylan got started. But it got a new lease on life from him. Rock and roll stars — the Beatles were overwhelmed by Dylan — from Mick Jagger to David Bowie tried to reproduce a little of what Dylan had done poetically, but to one degree or another, they all failed. Heck, even Dylan after 1966 mostly couldn’t do it, which shows you how great his poetic zenith was.

His later “personal” poetry is just as “political” as his earlier songs designated as such. More than any other poet-songwriter, he completely erased the distinction between the two, more than even Allen Ginsberg, I think. That is a huge contribution both to music and poetry, one that has not been exploited since then, because it is so difficult to do. One that perhaps requires above all the gift of prophecy, for which we might have to wait another 500 years.

To experience, even at the remove of more than half a century, a tiny bit of what Dylan’s poetry achieved when he was the master of his game is to be transformed in the way that only the highest forms of writing can transform us. Through this award, Ginsberg gets a posthumous freebie, as do many others of that period who were plowing deep into the intensity of psychic experience, like John Berryman and Ted Berrigan. We Americans were never that good before. We never will be again.

What we need, at this point in time, more desperately than anything, is to return to the root of love, that is to say, to stare blindly, and with the highest intensity, at our human reality. Dylan did that better than almost anyone else in the last hundred years, except perhaps T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Philip K. Dick. This is why he will be read and listened to and admired as long as the self exists in tension with the collectivity, as long as people fall in love and ponder their mortality, as long as they are oppressed or killed or helped or saved by society.

Poetry does all that, doesn’t it? It can deal with all that, can’t it? Of course I haven’t been surprised at the condemnation that has erupted on American social media since he won, the duly certified and credentialed writers asserting that Dylan is not literature, this is a slap in the face of literature, and what about the real writers? That tells you all you need to know about why he won the Nobel Prize, and yet why his poetry cannot truly be recognized as victorious.

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