In 2016 Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and thus remains as ground breaking and controversial as ever.
I, however, feel somewhat vindicated by his getting this honor.
Because in those mid-sixties years I was a ghostwriter, penning college papers for students at St. Joseph and LaSalle Universities in Philadelphia. I myself was attending Temple University as a Sociology major.
In that year, 1967, I was hired to write some speeches for Joe Rubio, who was attending St. Joseph University. One of the speeches I wrote for him was called, "Bob Dylan -- Poet". This was something of a risk, because generally the student had to give their speech before the class and then be subjected to a question and answer period about his or her piece. I spent a lot of time coaching Joe about Dylan, who he knew almost nothing about. Joe's singers of choice were the Four Seasons and Neil Diamond. So, I feared him having to field questions on his speech about Bob Dylan.
I also had no idea how his professor would react to his material. Maybe she hated Dylan, hated folk
(On the right is me in 1967.)
Below is the speech I wrote:
BOB DYLAN -- POET
John Ciardi has stated that Bob Dylan is not a poet, because “he doesn’t understand poetry and neither do those who listen to him”. It seems John Ciardi should know. He is poetry editor of the Saturday Review and has published a dozen poetry volumes, including translations of Dante’s Devine Comedy. He should know, but I don’t think he does.
I must be an upstart!
I don’t think I am. It’s true; I am only a neophyte poet. I can’t quote you many lines from any poems either. I'm really terrible at memorization.
I sound as if I am really giving support to Mr. Chiarti.
I would be, but I have a couple names on my side too. Old forms of poetry did not just spring forth with the full support of the public. It had to establish itself slowly. I now call my first witness to the stand, Mr. William Wordsworth.
“The revolutionary poet must himself create the taste by which he is judged. He will be recognized by the public only when the public has recognized itself in the work of the poet.”
Therefore, it can be argued that Bob Dylan’s lyrics are poetry, because his audience recognizes it as such. It is not Mr. Dylan’s fault that Mr. Ciardi has not found himself in those lines yet.
I present to you the testimony of Elizabeth Drew, author of Poetry.
“(Poetry’s) uses of words are finer and richer and more powerful than those of prose, and it has played a larger part in the whole literary tradition.”
There is no moon, June, spoon lyrics to Dylan’s compositions. His best lyric is striking in its imagery.
“Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind/ Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves/ The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach/ Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”
is from “Mr. Tambourine Man”,
“With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace? And your deck of cards missing the Jack and the ace/ And your basement clothes and your hollow face.”
is from “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, and look at this verse from “Chimes of Freedom”.
“Tolling for the deaf ‘n’ blind, tolling for the mute/ Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute,/ For the misdemeanor outlaw chased an’ cheated by pursuit/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
Those words are sharper than those of prose. Those words are imagery. And these are not isolated lyrics. This is the usual run. But this is just the lyricism. What of Miss Drew’s second point? Does Bob Dylan add to the overall literary scene?
Bob Dylan has had a profound effect on young poets. You can see his influence in the lesser magazines that fringe the art world, underground magazines such as the Psychedelphia Period, and in such art magazines as Evergreen Review and Avant Gard. It is true there are serious failings in these magazines as far as the general public is concerned, but these are magazines of experimentation, new form, and freedom of expression, and future poets will develop out of them. We can also see Dylan’s influence on songwriting. Paul Simon and John Lennon both admit to the influence of Dylan. John Phillips, Jeremy Clyde and Steve Gillette owe much to him. Music critics from local newspapers to conductor Leonard Bernstein admit that the Beatles and Bob Dylan have revolutionized pop music and turned it into an art form.
Wordsworth speaks again:
“A poet is a man speaking to men.”
We must admit that Bob Dylan is a man speaking to men about themselves. Despite John Ciardi’s angry opinion, we must accept Bob Dylan as a poet and his words as poems. It is not necessary to like the man, or even to like his poems. We are not forced to agree with them, or with him. But we should agree that they are poems. They have imagery. They speak of man to men. They are richer and more powerful than prose. They are far too great to be called merely pop song lyrics and be ranked with Bill Haley’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. They have contributed to the field of music and influenced other young poets. And they have been accepted as poetry by a vast audience. Remember Wordsworth:
“The revolutionary poet must himself create the taste by which he is judged.”
Mr. Dylan has done that, is doing that, and will continue to do that I’m sure.
“You must leave now, take what you need,
You think will last, But whatever you wish
to keep, you better grab it fast.”
Those lines open Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. It closes my little argument. Grab Bob Dylan and listen. He is a poet. He puts his poems to music, but that was what the original poems did. And he sings them. But he is a poet. Minor? Perhaps. Major? Who knows? Poet? Yes.
BOB DYLAN -- POET
1. Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story by Sy and Barbara Ribakove 1966
2. Poetry by Elizabeth Drew 1959
3. Bob Dylan Song Book by Bob Dylan 1966
4. The American Folk Scene Edited by David A. DeTurk and A. Poulin, Jr. The section on “Woody and his Children” 1967
5. McCall’s “A Middle-Aged Mother Visits the Teen Scene” by Helen Eustis August 1966
6. The Saturday Evening Post “Bob Dylan: ‘Well, What Have We here?’” by Jules Siegel July 30, 1966
7. Glamour “Bob Dylan: Poet” Summer 1966
8. The Village Voice “New Thing Called Dylan” by Jack Newfield Thursday, September 2, 1965
9. Evergreen Review Various Poetry 1966-1968 Editions
10. Avant Gard Various Poetry 1968 Editions
11. Psychadelphia Period Various Poetry 1967-1968 Editions
Drawings of Bob Dylan by Larry E., 1966
Drawings of Bob Dylan by Larry E., 1966