Dylan's Nobel Prize and the nature of poetry

by John MacBeath Watkins

I'm glad to hear that Bob Dylan is happy to accept the Nobel Prize for literature. This is a major stick in the eye for the American poetry establishment, which it seem to me has destroyed poetry as a popular medium.

Dylan's lyrics were sometimes allusive, sometimes bitter, sometimes funny, but always aimed at a wide audience.

He revolutionized folk lyrics with Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Johnny's in the basementMixing up the medicineI'm on the pavementThinking about the governmentThe man in the trench coatBadge out, laid offSays he's got a bad coughWants to get it paid offLook out kidIt's somethin' you didGod knows whenBut you're doing it againYou better duck down the alleywayLookin' for a new friendThe man in the coonskin cap, in the big penWants eleven dollar bills but you only got ten

Motorpsycho Nightmare was excellent light verse, and All Along the Watchtower is strange and mysterious, a song that ends as if it were beginning:

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl 
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Those lyrics are old, from the 1960s, but Dylan has continued to work, striving to fulfill the role of the balladeer.

It's easy to forget that poetry was once a popular medium, not the cloistered, academic artifice that it had become by the time Dylan came on the scene. Casey at the Bat first ran in a newspaper. Can you imagine a newspaper running such a poem today?

Lyric poetry was all about performance. It was a way of making literature that could be memorized and repeated with great accuracy, because if you busted a rhyme or missed a beat the mistake was at once evident, and the meter and rhyme assisted memory. Modern poetry, which often abandoned meter and rhyme, is more dependent on the written word. A poet that the academics might have favored for the Nobel is W.S. Merwin, one of the best of the free-verse poets. But it is much harder to remember this...

From Our Shadows

This has caused poetry to lose much of its audience. Fortunately, there are better judges of poetry than academics, such as audiences for music or poetry slams.

I graduated from high school with credits from five different schools, because my family moved around. As a junior, it appeared I would be short of credits to graduate when my senior year ended as a result of my peregrinations. Fortunately, I wrote a sonnet that won me a scholarship to a createive writing class taught by three University of Washington professors at the Cornish School of Allied Arts, which I attended as one of about a dozen high school students the summer between my junior and senior year, gaining enough credits to graduate.

The most important thing they taught me was that I did not want to be like my professors. They seemed to spend all their time trying to get published in incestuous little poetry journals which had an audience consisting almost entirely of people trying to get published in them.

I wanted to write for a broader audience, so I studied journalism. Perhaps, if I'd learned to be a musician, I might have had another outlet for the kind of thing I liked to write.

This is the point of giving the Nobel to Dylan rather than someone like Merwin. The Nobel committee was trying to reward lyrics written for a large audience, to encourage a return to poetry that sings.

Poetry is now more audience-driven than it was when I studied with those three professors. I can only hope the trend continues.