“Fighting in the Captain’s Tower”: In Defense of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize
When I was 15, in the spring of 1965, I found myself marching on the old Baltimore Washington Highway with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were on our way to Washington, D.C., to protest the murder of Reverend James Reeb in Selma.
To keep myself occupied for the long miles, I recited “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” out loud, a poem I greatly admired and had committed to memory.
Now I don’t know why at 15 I found this love song so compelling. Maybe I took pleasure in knowing Prufrock was even wimpier with women than I was. I could mock his waspy tea party social life, his gentlemanly repression. It’s odd considering that a Jew-hater wrote it, but Eliot’s poem made me proud to be down to earth, frank, and Jewish.
That’s why I liked the “Love Song” – but I also loved it. I loved the music and the drama, the precision of the imagery, the magic of the rhythms, and the overall architectonics. I never realized before how a poem could be not just a lyrical statement, but an entire world. The raw modernity of the diction was refreshing: “like a patient etherized upon a table” sounded new to me compared to the poems I’d read in school. I liked the mix of high and low culture: “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” and “In the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.” But especially the ending as the meter returns to iambic bedrock and bursts into song:
We have lingered by the chambers of the sea
By sea girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us and we drown
Eliot met me at the beginning of my lifelong love affair with poetry, and the mermaids (or were they sirens?) were inviting me from the flats of suburban life into the ocean of the archetypal.
So on that protest march in March 1965, I recited Prufrock’s love song over and over while a tough black ex-con in a denim jacket hollered at me, “Move it or I’m gonna put skirts on you.” I have love for that naive kid who believed then that poetry and the Civil Rights movement and all that was good and just and beautiful could march together – me, the ex-con, and Eliot’s mermaids on the road to freedom land. I was in that pleasurable state of mind Blake calls innocence and kabbalists call Eden.
In that Edenic state I had no idea that T S. Eliot would have abhorred everything I was marching for, everyone I was marching with, and me too.
Only later did I come across lines of exclusion like:
the jew squats on the windowsill, the owner
spawned in some estaminet in Antwerp
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
These were just like the signs my parents told me about from their childhood: “No dogs or Jews allowed.” I had no idea they could be fit in to the music of poetry.
So Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature and Eliot is a great poet – true statements that I would have to wrestle with as I lost my literary innocence.
It was a shock to get kicked out of Eden, but Bob Dylan met me at the gates, offering the weird consolation of his own lyrical gift. It was a kick to hear Dylan’s take on Eliot in “Desolation Row”:
Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row
Dylan’s strange surrealist lyrics were new to rock and had roots in poetry we both loved – in Rimbaud, but also Eliot. Like Eliot in “The Waste Land” or Rimbaud in his Illuminations, Dylan suggested entire worlds in just a few lines in songs like “Desolation Row” “The Gates of Eden” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Rimbaud had shown me the magical world after the deluge. Eliot, the disintegration of old beliefs. That strange new broken world terrified Eliot but exhilarated Dylan and me. Unlike Eliot and the other so-called modernists who hated everything we loved about modernity, Dylan and I were marching on the same side.
I knew that first from his early phase of protest music. Before he took us all into his own mythic phantasmagoria he had thought a lot about Desolation Row, and who lives there. He had aligned himself with the excluded, the minorities, the outsiders, those who wouldn’t fit into any tea party of the high-minded. And now, like Eliot, he’s won a Nobel Prize and some people aren’t very happy about it.
They want to uphold literary purity and say that Dylan is somehow still outside the gates of poetry.
It was just before dawn when I read the news about Dylan. I was already up, stirred awake by some dream. The news seemed as fresh and enlivening as any dawn.
But then I began to read negative reactions online. Over on Slate critic-at-large Steven Metcalf was comparing lines of poetry by Richard Wilbur to lyrics by Dylan as if that proved anything. Later I read Anna North in The New York Times arguing the prize should go to some deserving poet or writer because it would increase their book sales.
Those instant takes didn’t dismay me as much as the negative views of some of my poet “friends” on Facebook. They claimed Dylan isn’t really a poet – just a musician – or more peevishly that he’s had enough fame, recognition, and money. I guessed that their anger reflected the anguish of poets who feel that their hard work, their life’s work, is mostly ignored, barely received, and little remunerated. I understood because I’ve felt it myself. But I want to say as gently as possible, “Aren’t you forgetting something essential about the origins – and horizons – of poetry?”
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature for songwriting. He is a poet, but his medium is not the page. So yes his lines read different when you take away the music. But by reintroducing poetry to an existing popular musical genre, Dylan opened up possibilities for all poets. What Dylan understood very early is that in an electric age, poetry cannot survive without song.
People need poetry, I do believe that. We can’t get it from the news, as William Carlos Williams told us. But unfortunately most people also have a hard time getting it from the poems on the page.
Someone once criticized the poet Charles Reznikoff for rewriting some prose in lines of verse. “Why should we read these as poems now that you have broken them up into lines?” he was asked. Reznikoff replied with simple dignity, “Because to read them that way is not to read them as I intended.”
To rip the lyrics of a song away from their matrix of music and read them on the page is not to read them as they were intended.
The truth is most people have lost the ability to read poems on the page and hear the subtle music. That’s unfortunate because I believe they are really missing something. But it’s a fact.
No one has to tell anyone how to read a novel or watch a movie, which is why in some ways novels and movies still have a popular audience. And no one has to ask an expert before deciding, “Do I like this song?” But when it comes to poetry on the page, large numbers, the majority, feel lost.
Without being educated to do so, they may not hear how poems sing on the page, or care to notice where Shakespeare puts his caesura in a line, or the significance of a well placed trochee in a fourth foot:
My mistress when she walks treáds on the ground.
That’s great stuff, I personally love it, but I understand that in our time it’s an acquired and educated taste.
The people who want to place Dylan outside the gates of literature because he is merely a songwriter seem to have things backwards. Song is not outside of poetry; poetry is the daughter of song.
Most people – the vast majority of humanity today – get their poetry from songs. That was certainly true in the ancient world when literacy was hardly widespread. The psalms, Homer, the Vedas – the greatest ancient poems – were heard and revered as song. It is narrow-minded and culturally limited to think of poetry purely as page oriented, book oriented. I love the poems written for the page, I write poems that way, and for me it is the work that nourishes me, but poetry encompasses much more.
With Bob Dylan and others like him, we are talking about a very large ambition, a national and worldwide audience. It’s strange to think that what he’s doing isn’t poetry. There’s something missing in our idea of greatness in poetry if the audience isn’t large, and if the poems aren’t taken to heart – taken in, memorized, lived with, the way the songs of Bob Dylan have been lived with.
Poets remember their roots in song. “Song of Myself” is Whitman’s title for his masterpiece. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was Eliot’s first great work. A canto is a song. A sonnet is a “little song.” Lyric poetry and the song lyric were made for Apollo’s lyre – at root, poetry is born of singing. Yes there is a subtle “unheard music” Keats writes of, but not everyone has the ear to hear “ditties of no tone.” Many need to hear the actual music played with the words, and that is certainly a way in which the words get more deeply and widely absorbed into memory. And if poems aren’t carried in memory, they really lose contact with everyday life.
I could quote some very elaborate and beautiful lyrics of Dylan’s but let me go the other way and quote a very plain Dylan line that rises from an ear that was listening to how people talk:
Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
( – From “Ballad of a Thin Man”)
Most people who know Dylan could not really read these lines on the page without instantly hearing the music behind them, the tune and intonation, the tone and the attitude. It’s all one piece. It can’t be separated out in some autopsy.
It carries a whole world with it, a whole attitude of the hip to the square, from fifty years ago but still reverberating today.
As a young poet in 1972, I was in a graduate school poetry workshop and one of my fellow students was Gil Scott-Heron. Gil had already published a little book and had a novel on the way. He read one of his works to us in class and people started talking about line breaks and whether they liked the word “yellow”. Gil got up, packed his papers in a briefcase, and never came back to class.
Gil had something going on with music. He was inventing a new form of spoken poetry with music that would make him one of the forefathers of hip hop. I’m pretty sure Dylan was an inspiration to him and other young black artists at that time.
The situation in a workshop is the opposite of the situation in the world. In the workshop everyone has to read everyone’s work and comment on it. In the world, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. And I do regret that most people don’t want to read much of the poetry being written today – because they are missing something damn beautiful.
In our time, your average person does not read poetry, buy books of poetry, or care about poetry. By necessity, Dylan and other singer-songwriters like him, found a different way to keep poetry alive – by returning to the roots of poetry in song.
The complaint of North and Metcalf and many others boils down to this. Dylan won a Nobel Prize for Literature and he is a songwriter. This begs the question: why isn’t songwriting literature?
Song and poetry were once one; the lyrical poem and the lyric are children of the lyre, the sacred instrument of the god of poetry. If we go far enough back to the past, or observe the practices of most peoples throughout history, we see that poetry, song, and dance have a common origin. People would never have imagined poetry without music or dance. It’s the separation of the arts in our modernity that is strange.
Homer’s poetry was sung by wandering performers , the rhapsodists or Homerids. So were the psalms of King David who composed to the harp, and so were the great lyrics of the medieval troubadours who were accompanied by their jongleurs. The Vedas were sung as the Torah is chanted. When we go to the origins, we find a unity of the arts. The psalms we read now in a book, were sung with sacred movements in the Temple; the Iliad and Odyssey were brought as a live performance of words, music, and gesture. Tragedy was originally a “tragedos,” a goat song, dance, music, and words in a ritual performance for the god Dionysus.
Clearly Bob Dylan is in the tradition of the troubadours, who could not conceive of a poem that did not include its own music. Clearly he is in the tradition of the balladeers, itinerant poet-singers who brought the news of the day to life in their songs. He has equal roots in the poetry of Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, Rimbaud and even T.S. Eliot, but also in the politically charged ballads of Woody Guthrie that championed the working class, labor unions, and civil rights. It’s in recognition of these popular roots that Shakespeare – another commercial artist who pleased the general public – put so many songs and dances in his plays.
Popular poetry is not some offshoot of literature, it is closer to the roots: imagination unifies, dramatizes, people’s concerns. At its best imagination exists not to thwart and estrange people, but to bring them together. It’s no accident that Dylan’s early work aligned with the Civil Rights movement of the early ’60s, and that throughout his career he has addressed issues of broad social concern. His anthem “Blowing in the Wind” was great in its day and his ballad “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or his incredible lament for the death of Medgar Evers, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” were immediate and electric responses to the news of the day, with powerful messages that dramatized to a mostly white audience the oppression black people were experiencing. This politicized, activated, popular form of poetry is worthy of respect and celebration because it is at the core of what we hope for from poetry.
That’s my case for arguing that writing song lyrics, including popular song lyrics, can be as much a part of poetry as any other form. To paraphrase Auden, the poet wears his talent like a uniform, and we are all the size poets we are. But we ought to recognize that some talents are bolder, more inclusive and generous, and more in alignment with large popular movements of thought and action.
So this opens to another question. There seems to be an idea afoot, in the poetry world and the literary world, that somehow if a book is popular, it’s no good. This is such a weird self-defeating concept and yet it has deeply taken root. When the ship of literature went down, with T.S Eliot and Pound fighting in the captain’s tower, poetry was in the prow, and serious fiction not far behind. I fear greatly for so-called “creative non-fiction” now that it too is becoming an academic subject, but so far it is a hardy weed that seems to be resisting the fate of becoming “literature,” or should I say “serious literature” for “serious people” who are “worthy” and “deserving” of a Nobel Prize.
There was a time in the nineteenth century when a poet could actually hope to make a living from selling books, as Byron did, as Longfellow did, as John Keats hoped to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with poets reaching a wide audience and a lot to recommend it. For one thing, having contact with a living audience breathes some air into the system, and encourages poets to write about things that large numbers of people care about. That’s not something much encouraged in today’s poetry-workshop complex. But I don’t blame the poetry programs (which I taught in). Their format is only the end result of a century of anti-popular elitism and perpetual avant-gardism – a movement that really began with so-called literary modernism.
Walt Whitman, our great prophet of American poetry, wrote, “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.” This is an essential demand American poetry has been failing for generations, with the exception of a few unruly souls. The poets who became essential in the twentieth century and had wide audiences were those whose very existence came to represent that audience. Allen Ginsberg comes to mind. So does Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Amiri Baraka. And you see in those poets, as you see in Dylan, the sense of an audience coming to recognize itself in their work, which is the mark of a poet with a great audience. All of them were controversial, all of them made news again and again – they knew how to play into the intersection of living art and popular culture. They were often flamboyant, outrageous, and to some people deeply offensive. But they made damn sure their poetry stayed alive in the world.
And this broad populism is a particularly American ideal of art.
Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, Harriet Monroe wanted Whitman’s statement about great audiences to be the motto for Poetry Magazine. From London, Pound protested and you can hear the snobbery and hatred of common people seething across the Atlantic: “The artist is not dependent upon the multitude of his listeners,” Pound wrote to Monroe. “Humanity is the rich effluvium, it is the waste and the manure of the soil, and from it grows the tree of the arts.”
(This is the same kind of language Eliot applied specifically to Jews in his poems, when he speaks of a Jew staring at a Canaletto from the “protozoic slime.”)
Pound’s words (or Eliot’s) sound horrible today but they reflect an attitude towards the mass of humanity that was all too common for their coterie. This was the attitude of modernist poetry towards common people, towards women, black people, Jews, and other minorities who weren’t in the privileged classes. And this was the attitude of many of the critics who followed in its wake. There is nothing less modern in its outlook than modernist poetry. There’s nothing less aligned with the major social and popular movements of their time and ours – with the early feminist movement, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement. And in our time, when we are facing a global catastrophe of climate disorder, there’s clearly a need for a form of popular song that might address and bring imagination to that movement as well.
Pound thought he was holding up to Monroe an ideal of Dante as the ultimate poet. (Imagine that: a medieval poet as the ideal for American poetry.)
Writing in 1914, Monroe pointed out in her response: “Modern inventions, forcing international travel, inter-racial thought, upon the world, have done away withDante’s little audience, with his contempt for the crowd, a contempt which, however, disregarded the fact that his epic, like all the greatest art, was based upon the whole life of his time, the common thought and feeling of all the people.”
Monroe sounds like she could be defending Bob Dylan’s work today, especially when she continued:
“No small group today can suffice for the poet’s immediate audience, as such groups did in the stay-at-home aristocratic ages; and the greatest danger which besets modern art is that of slighting the ‘great audience’ whose response alone can give it authority and volume, and of magnifying the importance of a coterie.”
It’s not an accident that Dylan first came into prominence as a folksinger whose songs were in support of the Civil Rights and anti-war movement any more than it’s an accident that hip hop and rap were forms of poetry that arose as part of a rise in social consciousness in the African-American community.
The separation of the arts may be a condition of our modernity, but the reunification of the arts is a hopeful move and Dylan led the way. The divorce between poetry and song, which has continued to the point where poetry today can’t be memorized, and therefore isn’t remembered by large numbers of people – was a huge loss for poetry and certainly one reason why many poets today are haunted by a lack of audience.
Bob Dylan took a different path, and not an easy one. He reunited poetry and music, invigorating the simple rock and roll form, extending it at times into a complex phantasmagoria, and infusing its language with verbal complexity, irony, strong imagery, and wit. And it was a blessing to us all. Because actually people do need poetry – they just can’t always find it in poems.
I know back when I started reading, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Eliot before I found he hated me and my people, his work might have blocked my way. So I can understand how people turn away from poetry when it baffles them, insults them, or confuses them.
At the beginning of literary modernism poetry in English was already losing its larger popular audience. In the nineteenth century it was still reasonable for poets like Wordsworth or Byron or Longfellow to imagine sustaining a livelihood by writing poetry. But as Pound himself noted, when poetry separates from music and dance it loses its vitality. Here is a strong argument in favor of Bob Dylan’s work, for clearly by taking on the existing form of rock and roll, that was still dance music, and adding poetic lyrics, he helped signal a change in the whole direction of our culture.
Great poets need great audiences. This is what Whitman understood. There is no greatness in a vacuum and if a poet isn’t loved and adapted and memorized by his or her group, that poet is not great, however accomplished technically. The times were a changing and Dylan reflected that change in a way that was potent.
His talent is and was much bigger than that of so many of us. It encompassed multitudes, as Whitman would say. And that’s a worthy aspiration of a songwriter. Does that make him a pure poet of the page? Do I have to choose? I like Dylan’s political ballads and in their time they served me well. Auden’s ballad “As I walked out one evening” has aged better, I’ve been reading it for thirty years and it has something I need from poetry. I still love to read and memorize poems but I also can’t keep Dylan’s lyrics out of my head, in part because they helped to shape it. His achievement does nothing to diminish my pleasure in reading but I suspect many more people learned to love poetry because of Bob Dylan than almost any poet of my generation.
In his early protest songs he aligned himself with the major movements of his time; in his more adventurous songs that followed he created whole mythic landscapes. His love songs are true and sincere, and his hymns, like “I Shall Be Released,” lift us into a longing for liberation that opens to spiritual depth. He has read deeply into the American songbook – blues, country, folk – and reinvigorated it. He has lived up to the ideal Whitman set in his preface to Leaves of Grass:
“The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”
I still feel exhilarated by the freshness, the freedom and promise in Bob Dylan’s songs. Over and again “I see a light come shining” in his work and I think a lot of us hear the promise that “any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”
Rodger Kamenetz’s latest book of poetry is To Die Next To You. His poems on Eliot and Pound can be found in The Lowercase Jew. One of his most recent poems “The Master of the Good Name” is featured on www.tikkun.org. You can find more of his work at www.kamenetz.com.