Others just get wet.
I know as little about poetry as I do about wine, which is to say practically nothing. I took a wine class once to try to fix this. On completing it, I felt this cartoon accurately reflected my new level of knowledge:
In high school, I was exposed to some poetry basics, like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Around a campfire, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” seemed awesome, but that was about as far as I got.
My more literate friends gave me the side-eye when I said Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, just sitting there on the page with no music, was the best poem I ever read. Fifty years later, it turns out I’m a damned poetry genius.
As with everything Dylan, getting the Nobel Prize for Literature stirs controversy. Part of it is his initial apparent snubbing of the prize people, but most of it seems like envy and misunderstanding – critics being critical and needing to show how clever they are by putting something down. Like the man said, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand”.
I think maybe there’s something else going on as well. It’s like the legendary visit Steve Jobs made to Xerox PARC, where they gave away all their innovations, which Jobs then used to revolutionize desktop computing. Jobs said he was so blinded by the brilliance of the first thing they showed him (the graphical user interface), that he completely missed the importance of two others (ethernet and object oriented programming).
Maybe Dylan’s powerful vocal style and “finger-pointing” songs blinded the critics to his beautiful music and his brilliant poetry.
Dylan’s vocals were unique and authentic, so much so that many thought he couldn’t really sing. Mitch Miller was head of A & R at Columbia when they signed Dylan, and said he “didn’t see the genius in it”. They wanted beautiful voices and beautiful arrangements.
And sometimes you don’t realize how beautiful Dylan’s tunes can be until you hear them covered by someone else, and he’s been covered by more contemporary artists than anyone. This site catalogs something like 6000 recorded covers of 350 different Dylan songs covered by about 2800 different artists.
But the torrent of words, images, thoughts, dreams, and ideas that flowed from Dylan is the thing, above all else, that defines his brilliance, and has only now been accepted by the literary establishment (or at least the Nobel Prize committee) as “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
Dylan may be quoted more that any other English language source besides Shakespeare and the Bible. Dylan is the song writer most quoted by the Supreme Court. There are over 700 references to Dylan’s words in the biomedical journals database.
Everywhere you look there is a Dylanism. Today I saw something in the bookstore subtitled “The whole world’s watching”. I’m guessing the author didn’t know this is from “When the Ship Comes In”, a brilliant song and poem that has been largely forgotten, except that I just this second heard it on TV as the soundtrack to a VW Golf Alltack ad.
So much has been written about Dylan that it seems silly to try to add anything new at this point. But if you’re looking for expert opinion on poetry, I can now say with confidence that you’ve come to the right place today.
Also, watch this space for my thoughts on why Gruener Veltiners and Rieslings co-exist so well in the terroir just west of Vienna.