Tossing Lines: Dylan’s Nobel is American poetry, not just blowing in the wind

True confession: A lot of people harbored doubts about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 and, though a lifelong fan, I was one of them.

That was until this winter, when I browsed through my favorite Wake Forest, North Carolina, bookstore, Page 158 Books, where I always find a gem. My roving retinas fell upon “Why Bob Dylan Matters” by Richard F. Thomas.

Thomas is the George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at Harvard University, where he teaches a popular course called Dylan 101, a serendipitous argument for the Nobel.

If a Harvard professor couldn’t convince me, who could?

Thomas asserts Dylan’s work equals that of classical Roman and Greek poets and, indeed, Dylan has been a lifelong student of them all: Homer, Virgil, Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Thucydides and many more. Their influence has been evident in his lyrics since the beginning.

The book looks through a microscope, comparing Dylan’s words with those of the ancients, and concludes that Dylan “…is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being contained by time or place.”

The professor teaches that the old poets “captured what it means to live and love, to win and lose, to grieve and celebrate, and to grow old and die. For two thousand years, their poetry has fired the minds and imaginations of philosophers and poets, painters, sculptors and musicians, dreamers and lovers,” just as Bob Dylan has done in modern times.

His concert audiences are a sea of suits, jeans, evening gowns and punk garb. He reaches us all.

Dylan and I go way back. Early Dylan is still one of my cerebral defenses against the monotony of my indoor spin bike. I listen to tunes written over 50 years ago, still meaningful today, solid testament to his timelessness.

The poetic imagery throughout his lyrics over decades include people “bent out of shape by society’s pliers”, places where “hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten”; a “roomful of men with their hammers a-bleedin’”; “nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks, Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain”; how “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”, how “Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail, the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder.”

Dylan’s unique literary skills offer insightful, acerbic descriptions of love and people good and bad, just like the classical poets did in their time, creating, Thomas says, “timeless works for their generation and those to follow.”

And like those ancient poets who risked exile by challenging the norm, Dylan capitulates to no one. He lectured the sober Nobel committee:

“You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.”

Oh yeah, Dylan has long been our Homer, Virgil, Catullus, Ovid. He deserved that Nobel.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com. Read more at www.johnsteward.online.

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