“There’s a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better,” Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles, Volume 1, his inimitable 2004 memoir (with no Vol. 2 as yet). He reflects on a long stretch when he made a record here: “There’s a thousand different angles at any moment. Any time you could run into a ritual honoring some vaguely known queen. … No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.”
“Everything in New Orleans is a good idea,” he continues. “Chronic melancholia hangs from the trees. You never get tired of it. After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs. … A great place to live vicariously. Nothing makes any difference and you never feel hurt, a great place to really hit on things. Somebody puts something in front of you here and you might as well drink it. Great place to be intimate or do nothing.”
In October came the news that Dylan, whose revolutionary lyrics form a soundtrack of our time, had won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. He said nothing in response. I thought of Louise Erdrich, whose novels have a grace and skill deserving of such a prize. Literary experts opined on the rock singer getting literature’s highest honor. “Bob is embarrassed by the prize,” Garrison Keillor wrote in the Washington Post. “He’s from Minnesota, he has a conscience. He has written a few good love songs and some memorable phrases and the Swedes have embraced him as if he were Homer, which he is not.”
But then, from Stephen King, “I am ecstatic that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel. A great and good thing in a season of sleaze and sadness.”
A season indeed. As Donald Trump’s scandals produced a pornographic campaign, a nation turned its lonely eyes to Bob. Would he go to Stockholm and give an acceptance speech?
Rodger Kamenetz, a distinguished poet in a city that’s one very long poem, says he wouldn’t care, that “his silence would be poetic.”
Kamenetz assessed Dylan for Tikkun Magazine’s daily blog: “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 30 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.”
He continues, “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.’”
When Alice Munro, the Canadian writer, won the 2013 Nobel, she declined to make the trip, citing her age: 82. People nodded. Dylan, 75 and still a troubadour, stirred weeks of speculation before saying that he would probably be in Stockholm in December and accept the big prize. After so many concerts where aging baby-boomers pluck down $100 a ticket, seize the global moment, Bob, and speak to the world.