Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Poetry Presidental Election

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize (Part Two)

Monday, October 17, 2016

I went over a list of winners of the Nobel Prize in recent decades the other night and found many admirable and extraordinarily deserving authors: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Harold Pinter, Wislawa Szymborska, VS Naipaul, Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison. Unfortunately, Graham Greene and Robertson Davies were not listed.

On the other hand, I also found that Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney were given this honor. Anyone complaining about the selection of Bob Dylan needs to be sentenced to six months of reading only the poetry of these three poets. Nobody else. Just these three. Brodsky for a week. Walcott for a week. Heaney for a week. Repeat again, then get serious. Brodsky for two weeks, Walcott for a pair, followed by Heaney for a pair.

In contrast, I could maintain an exclusive, six-month reading regimen with any three of the first set of writers I listed: Paz, Szymborska, and Morrison, for instance. Or Naipaul, Beckett and Marquez. Six steady months of that rotation and I would come out of it a better writer and reader. Six months of Brodsky, Heaney, and Walcott would leave me desolate and bored. Numbed by the anesthesia of imaginative vacuity. Heaney’s “Digging” is an example of a so-called canonical poem I dread teaching. The equation of the pen with the shovel? Did no one who read an early draft of this poem point out to Seamus how obvious, how unsurprising, this is? I do want to emphasize that I have given Heaney a more than generous amount of my time and attention in considering his work. Despite my misgivings about the quality of his poetry, I did attend one of his readings once, when he appeared at UCSD after winning the Nobel. Unfortunately, his poems were just as safe and banal as I anticipated.

As much as I find Heaney’s poetry uninspiring, I would never engage in the kind of ad hominem attack that implicitly accuses Bob Dylan of being responsible for the rise of neo-fascist politicians in the United States. “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president,” wrote Mr. Tim Stanley (The Telegraph, October 13). Excuse me, but Dylan’s accomplishment in setting poems to music is no more responsible for Trump than Seamus Heaney’s devotion to his art was responsible for Margaret Thatcher.

The conflation of Bob Dylan and Trump is an outrageous smear, and Mr. Stanley reveals himself to be a more feasible applicant for a position as an advisor to Mr. Trump than a reliable cultural critic. Would it not be far more accurate to say that a world that awards Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature is a world that elected and re-elected Barack Obama, and will soon affirm Hillary Clinton to be his successor? Bob Dylan’s writing does not diverge into a pair of roads, one leading to Trump and the other leading to Obama and Clinton. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.


Collage Music Performance Teaching

The Gallantry of Bob Dylan, Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

Thursday, October 13, 2016


A dozen or so years ago, as I was finishing up my Ph.D. dissertation and working as a teaching assistant in the Humanities Program at Revelle College at UCSD, I had the good fortune to be assigned to William Arctander (“Billy”) O’Brien, an absolutely brilliant professor whose specialties included the final installment of a “Great Books” survey for undergraduates, most of whom were pre-med students. This intellectual forced march began in the Winter quarter of the students’ first year, and often started with Homer and Plato. By the end of their sophomore year, in the fifth quarter, the students were often reading Nietzsche and Beckett. O’Brien was the first professor I ever met who included Bob Dylan on his syllabus for this course, and O’Brien most certainly should be savoring his prescience in acknowledging the canonical value of Bob Dylan’s writing. So, too, should Steve Axelrod, whose recent three-volume anthology of American poetry includes a solid set of Bob Dylan’s lyrics (in Volume three, “Postmodernisms”). O’Brien, though, was far ahead of the curve and deserves considerable applause for his academic courage.

Following O’Brien’s example, I also teach Bob Dylan’s lyrics as part of a “Survey on Poetry” course at CSULB, and have always been puzzled at the unwillingness of so many other professors to include him. I doubt that the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Bob Dylan will change their minds. For many contemporary poets, not much has changed since Robert Lowell conceded in the mid-1960s that Bob Dylan had written some fragments that might be considered poetry, but that he had not written anything that stood on its own all the way through as a poem. Lowell was essentially saying that music had to intervene and prolong the poetic touch of Dylan’s lyrics at the point that language failed in his verses.

It is after citing Lowell in my classes that the students read “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” No music is played; no singing is heard. We look at the words on the page, and ask if they hold up as a poem. Indeed, the words do sustain the entire poem, and even more remarkably, it also turns out to have been set to a quietly imploring melody. Having established that Bob Dylan’s writing does more than partake of the “poetic,” but unfolds its essential imaginative logic with as much negative capability as Keats ever asked of a poem, we move on to a consideration of David Antin’s observation that Dylan is essentially a collage artist, a description that is most useful when examining “Desolation Row.”

Since teaching Literature always involves introducing student to formal terms, it is at this point that I define epistrophe for the students, and during my remarks on “Desolation Row” I offer other examples of this rhetorical technique. I noticed that the newspaper articles carrying the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature cite many of the musical influences on Bob Dylan, as well as those whose work he has in turn influenced. Not a single article has mentioned Robert Burns, the poet whom Dylan acknowledged as having influenced his songwriting. In particular, of course, Burns would have been an influence in Dylan’s use of epistrophe, starting with “Hard Rain” and “Desolation Row.” “Tangled Up in Blue” remains one of the masterful instances of that ancient rhetorical arrangement, and it would behoove contemporary poets to follow Dylan’s example and draw upon Burns as a model.

One of the pivotal questions about Bob Dylan’s status as a writer and poet is ultimately not about him, but about his audience, for it is not just the selection of Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) for this award that irks those who still cling to Robert Lowell’s assessment. Rather, it is the gnawing suspicion that this award in some way legitimates the audience that Dylan’s writings and music have attracted. “Do the people in his audiences read other books? Other poets?” Behind the all too foreseeable backlash to Dylan’s award, it will not be too difficult to detect a residual fear of the illiterate masses, whose preferences are easily seduced by a charismatic performance in the oral tradition.

I have no doubt that a significant number of people who listen to Dylan’s songs do not spend much time reading the poetry found in contemporary anthologies. His audience, however, also includes many poets whose commitment to their art was shaped by his vision of the public role that a poet could play, if only one dared to be audacious enough. Such a quest requires the one quality that Dylan himself assessed as possibly being the most enduring virtue of his writing: a sense of gallantry. I call upon those who feel reluctant to applaud the award of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan to remind themselves of this archaic ideal and to reexamine their own lives and writing within that context.

Thanks to Twitter, I learned of a link to a very thoughtful essay on Bob Dylan by Robert Polito:


Books Music Poetry

The Thingz (Part Two) – Flem Snopes and Imperial Beach

MONDAY, June 24, 2013

Yesterday, Linda and I drove down to Imperial Beach to see my mother. Technically, she doesn’t live in Imperial Beach anymore. The far eastern portion of the “most southwesterly city in the United States” was annexed by San Diego a couple of decades ago, but the house I lived in when I graduated from high school was in Imperial Beach in the mid-1960s and it’s hard for me to think of it as otherwise.

On the way down, Linda and I listened to several CDs, a couple of old favorites (Bob Dylan’s LOVE AND THEFT; Dire Straits BROTHERS IN ARMS). We also played the first album by The Thingz. Much to my surprise, one of the songs contained a reference to Imperial Beach. It’s one thing for Patti Smith to entitle a song “Redondo Beach”; it’s near enough Los Angeles to have some of L.A.’s peripheral aura adhere to RB’s reclusive sense of self-possessiveness. Imperial Beach, on the other hand, has no access to anything other than military culture whatsoever, and no one who lives in San Diego has any interest in pretending otherwise.  To have the closest thing I ever had in my peripatetic childhood to a hometown mentioned in a pop song, therefore, caught me completely off-guard. The song, “Wine Country Safari,” begins in Long Beach:


Made a wrong turn on 10th street

And I lost my way

Turned down a blind alley

Heard someone say


wine country safari

wine country safari

you’re in whine country

where the winos go


drove down the 5 freeway

nothing else to do

ended up in Imperial Beach

guess I missed the zoo.


But it wasn’t the mention of Imperial Beach that made me want to photocopy the lyric sheet and pass it around to my colleagues in Literature at CSULB. Right next to “Wine Country Safari” is a song entitled “Flem Snopes.” I would have loved to have heard that song this past Saturday, and I hope The Thingz will consider it a personal request to play this song at their next concert.

For those who have yet to visit Imperial Beach, I would recommend digging into the New York Times archives for an article in 2002 on bow and arrow fishing from the public pier in Imperial Beach. In the third paragraph, the reporter cited “the town’s rough-and-tumble character.” When I read the article a little over ten years ago, I wondered what terms the reporter would have used to describe the city back in the 1960s, when “rough-and-tumble” would have been taken as an insult that demeaned the city’s well-earned nickname of “Whiskey Flats.” The reporter obviously had no idea of how far up the food chain the city had climbed in order to achieve the status of “rough-and-tumble.” As for imagining a story about a person who might run a bait shop on the pier, by the way, why not make use of a little loan from William Faulkner, in the song I mentioned above?

Here’s the link: