No sooner was it announced last month that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature than the fighting began. Enthusiasts cited the way Mr. Dylan has entered and modified the culture. How his phrases linger in the air. The times they are a-changin’. There are no truths outside the Gates of Eden. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. He not busy being born is busy dying.
But the cries of dismay were predictable if only because the poetry community is marked by bile and resentment. Any American poet—even our grand old master Richard Wilbur, now 95—would get his share of Bronx cheers if he were to win the Nobel. It was said of Mr. Dylan that he didn’t need the prize, that he is yet another old white guy, that he is arrogant, that he composes songs not poems.
Purists would say that what he writes are lyrics, which depend on their musical setting for coherence and are inextricably bound up with their performance. I would counter that the best of Mr. Dylan’s songs work on the page, not only because of their originality but equally because they constitute the autobiography of a personality that is rebellious, ornery, intense and remarkably attuned to our rapidly shifting zeitgeist.
Along comes “Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961-2012” to help us to adjudicate. Released today in unquestionably the most fortuitous publication timing in memory, the book contains all of Mr. Dylan’s songs, organized album by album from his eponymous 1962 debut to his most recent efforts, “Together Through Life” (2009) and “Tempest” (2012). The transcendent period was the stretch between 1964 and 1967—the period of “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Just Like a Woman” and “All Along the Watchtower.”
The collected lyrics make the primary case for Mr. Dylan’s achievement. But “Chronicles” (2004), the first volume of Mr. Dylan’s projected three-volume memoirs, offers a valuable window into the writer’s brain. .
“Truth was the last thing on my mind, and even if there was such a thing, I didn’t want it in my house,” he wrote of trying to compose songs. “Oedipus went looking for the truth and when he found it, it ruined him. It was a cruel horror of a joke. So much for the truth. I was gonna talk out of both sides of my mouth and what you heard depended on which side you were standing. If I ever did stumble on any truth, I was gonna sit on it and keep it down.”
Not for nothing did he discard his birth name (Zimmerman) in favor of the first name of the wild Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. A natural surrealist, Mr. Dylan is a put-on artist, a joker, enigmatic, elusive and full of belligerence. “Maggie’s Farm” (1965), for instance, elevates “I quit” into poetry: He “hands you a nickel, / He hands you a dime, / He asks you with a grin / If you’re havin’ a good time, / Then he fines you every time you slam the door / I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.”
And then there’s the ire hurled at a false friend in 1965’s “Positively 4th Street”:
I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you.
Note the artful simplicity in these, the song’s final stanzas. The lines consist almost exclusively of monosyllables. The meter is iambic with anapests to keep the flow going and spondees to bring the thought to a halt. The repetition of lines reflects the influence not only of the blues but also of traditional song.
Usually when I discuss Bob Dylan as a poet I point to his visionary songs. “Desolation Row” (1965), which I selected for inclusion in “The Oxford Book of American Poetry,” is terrific in its phantasmagoria:
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.
Another fine example is the title song of “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), which begins with God and Abraham mixing it up in Genesis 22: “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’ / Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’ ”
But you could as easily make the case on the basis of his powers of rhetoric. His gift is oracular. Some of his strongest lines are infused with the spirit of protest: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?” Others verge on heartbreak: “It don’t even matter to me where you’re wakin’ up tomorrow / But mama, you’re just on my mind.”
With its rapid-fire patter, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965) prefigures the spoken-word and performance poetry of so much recent music: “Johnny’s in the basement / Mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement / Thinking about the government / The man in the trench coat / Badge out, laid off / Says he’s got a bad cough / Wants to get it paid off.” The rhymes in “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) or “I Want You” (1966) show there’s a lot of life left in that venerable device.
In 1880, Matthew Arnold introduced the concept of “touchstones” into the study of poetry, for exemplary lines that imprint themselves on the mind. It is a criterion the author of “Visions of Johanna” (1966) meets: “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face.” With or without music, that line sings. Only a true poet could have written it.
from the Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2016