Jay Parini: Bob Dylan has written songs that speak to our deepest concerns
Other singers have summed up a generation, but Dylan wrote words to his songs, he says
Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is “New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
From the early ’60s to today, decade after decade, Bob Dylan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has filled our heads with language that both interprets and transforms the realities we confront. I’ve gone to sleep many nights with stanzas of Dylan floating in my head, the words attached to the haunting notes. “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” I often say to myself, taking the line from “My Back Pages.”
Popular singers have meant a great deal to generations before: Crosby, Sinatra and Elvis Presley come to mind. But Dylan actually wrote the words he sang.
And not just sweet love poems. Dylan challenged us again and again: “How many deaths will it take till they know / That too many people have died?” Those words underscored, even explained, my reaction to the Vietnam War. It brought up echoes of countless deaths in the name of freedom, and has been something of a battle cry for me personally ever since. Too many people have died, and it’s worth putting every ounce of energy we have into trying to ease the catastrophe.
One can’t even begin to explain the ferocity and magic of “Desolation Row,” where he alludes to Eliot and Pound “fighting in the captain’s tower.” One sensed that Dylan was there with the captains, himself an officer in the poetic ranks, struggling to express the fear and loneliness that besets us all. And he did so in his usual antic style, matching and mixing allusions from a broad range of sources, from fairy tales to science, from the Bible to Shakespeare.
The political strand in his work has often been noted, with so many vivid lines – as in “It’s Alright, Ma,” where he cries: “Even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked.” Can this ever have seemed more relevant?
And then there was that seven-minute warning of the coming apocalypse in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” – a lyric that began as a poem, in fact, and was first sung at Carnegie Hall in 1962.
But he’s a love poet, too: One thinks of his sweet love lyrics, such as “Just Like a Woman,” and his bitter love statement, such as “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” Or one recalls the long ballads about relationships gone sour, as in “Tangled Up in Blue.”
There is a biblical power in “Every Grain of Sand,” which has the power of a psalm. The same might be said for “I Shall Be Released” or the hair-raising and revelatory “All Along the Watchtower.” Or one thinks of “Like a Rolling Stone,” where that fighting voice becomes, somehow, the voice of a generation at its most eloquent and unrepentant: “How does it feel to be on your own?” Frankly, it feels good.
But the great writing has gone on and on, with late songs burning their ways into the collective mind, as in “Not Dark Yet” – “Feel like my soul has turned into steel / I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t let me heal.” That song was one of many in “Time Out of Mind” (1997), one of his finest late albums.
One expects a Nobel to land in the lap of a more literary or conventional poet or writer, and I don’t doubt that many will demur. Dylan doesn’t publish slim volumes of poetry. He doesn’t give readings.
But he’s the real deal, as a poet, if we consider poetry a language adequate to our experience as human beings.
It’s worth remembering that the first poets were lyric poets, such as Sappho. Their words moved to rhythms. They were sung.
Dylan writes in the greatest tradition of lyric poetry, and he deserves this prize.