Relentlessly, from the moment the Nobel committee announced that they were awarding a Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, critics have said that he doesn’t deserve the award. The primary argument is that he’s a song writer not a pure poet and that his poetry doesn’t stand up to scrutiny strictly as poetry. In other words, it needs the music to work as poetry.
This is a scurrilous argument. It is the same type of argument that says that baseball played with a designated hitter is not real baseball; that autobiographical fiction is not real fiction; that food from one particular cuisine prepared by a chef who grew up in a different culture is not genuine; that folk music with electric guitars is not real folk music; or that an online casino is not a real casino.
Some Truth but…
There may be some truth to each of these arguments. The designated hitter in baseball changed strategy dramatically but the old cliché about baseball still remains: ball or strike; fair or foul; safe or out.
Most first novels are very autobiographical. Are J.D.Salinger’s or Harper Lee’s first novels not good fiction because they were based on the authors’ childhoods?
If a chef can only cook his grandmother’s food, what do we need chefs for? How dare you use turkey necks in grandma’s chicken soup?
If Bob Dylan proved anything as a musician it is that musical genres form a Venn diagram with a great deal of overlap and that the overlap enhances the music rather than detract from it.
An online casino cannot simulate or recreate the excitement of a land based casino. Land based casinos can’t offer the many things online casinos, like FairGo Casino can offer such as unlimited free play, no waiting, hundreds of games, bonuses, and cuddly digital mascots.
What is Poetry?
If all poets were to be judged on the standard set by Robert Frost, no poet would merit a Nobel Prize. George Orwell was the foremost essayist of our time—he was famously called the conservative essayist that liberals liked the most and the liberal essayist that conservatives liked the most. W Somerset Maugham said that to Herman Melville “all is song”; does that preclude any novel that is less “musical” than Moby Dick? We seem to have entered a kind of circular argument.
Like a Rolling Stone
Let’s see if this lyric stands alone as valuable poetry.
Dylan is speaking to an anonymous woman, Miss Lonely. He sneers at her with the words a parent might use on a child in a disciplinary way; here the words drip with contempt. She is on her own with no way home because she no longer has daddy to cover her extravagances and the shock is mesmerizing. Suddenly, she realizes that she has no one and is important to no one. The coup de grace is the reference to a rolling stone.
A rolling stone carries no moss.
Papa was a rolling stone.
Dylan, for all his dislike of Miss Lonely is telling her that she now has the chance, the challenge, and the obligation to herself to be a rolling stone. A rolling stone is a work in progress. The image is a reference to the Christian view that only a soul that has been reborn, that changes from being a rolling stone to being one with Jesus, earns absolute forgiveness and everlasting life. A soul that is one with Jesus no longer is on its own—it is with Jesus and his vast community; no longer has no direction home—is home; no longer is a complete unknown—is completely known to Jesus, his followers, and to the world by its acts; and is no longer a rolling stone.
Jewish or ….?
For better or worse, Bob Dylan has always been a work in progress. He grew up in a Jewish home in Hibbing, a cold, northern Minnesota mining town. He seems to have been restless, to feel confined, to see himself as a rolling stone from his youth.
He ran away from home often but never got far. His first musical love was rock and roll but he abandoned it for folk music because, although he felt that rock and roll was powerful as music, the songs weren’t serious enough for him.
He attended the University of Minnesota for one year and then dropped out at age 19 to pursue folk music in New York City. In New York, he began using the name Bob Dylan. He said years later that he wanted a name that suited him more than Zimmerman.
Soon after entering the folk music scene Dylan found it too confining as well. His songs Like a Rolling Stone and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall both use a more subjective creative line than in traditional folk. And his break from acoustic to electric guitar sealed his fate as an apostate to the folk music “religion”.
Dylan converted to Christianity but never lost the Jewish roots that led him to his conversion. Some have said that he has backslid from his conversation but it’s more likely that he came to find Christianity in this life to be too confining.
Dylan as Poet
If Dylan’s life is a work in progress; if his music and lyrics strive to express the highest emotions and truths; if he has never wavered from seeking God wherever God may be found, then his poetry should be judged through those lenses, not through the lens of other poets.