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Novelist Jonathan Lethem on Bob Dylan’s ‘Mad-Scientist Audacity’

Ahead of Saturday’s Nobel Prize ceremony, writer pays tribute to his hero’s poetic genius

Bob Dylan, Jonathan Lethem

Ahead of Saturday's Nobel Prize ceremony, novelist Jonathan Lethem pays tribute to Bob Dylan's "mad-scientist audacity."

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In 2006, novelist and lifelong Bob Dylan fan Jonathan Lethem met Dylan in a Santa Monica, California, hotel room for a highly memorable interview coinciding with the release of Modern Times, which ranged from the singer’s thoughts on file sharing to his unwanted savior’s role: “You know, everybody makes a big deal about the Sixties,” Dylan said. “The Sixties, it’s like the Civil War days. But, I mean, you’re talking to a person who owns the Sixties. Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties – who’s going to argue with me? … I’ll give ’em to you if you want ’em. You can have ’em.” On Saturday, Dylan will be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; we reached out to influential fans ranging from Al Gore to Stephen King to share their thoughts on the honor. Here, Lethem weighs in on Dylan’s literary legacy.

Listen, the first person to say Bob Dylan’s writing “isn’t poetry for the page,” to my knowledge, was Ellen Willis, in 1967: “When critics call Dylan a poet, they really mean a visionary. Because the poet is the paradigmatic seer, it is conventional to talk about the film poet, the jazz poet.”

But that’s not to say Dylan’s work isn’t writing, anymore than Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape isn’t writing. Would anyone claim the prose of writers as diverse as Eileen Myles (who I’ve witnessed giving readings from a music stand, from pages she’d largely memorized and was able to deliver as a rhythmic incantation – you could practically clap along) and Philip Roth (whose best pages work as furious brain-voice rants that practically bring bile to the reader’s throat by proxy) isn’t writing because of the presence of a component of vocal energy and colloquial language – unexpected shifts in register from high-literary tongue to a whole variety of asides, imprecations, mutterances, smutty remarks, etc.?

Dylan’s genius was to pressure a whole host of languages into unprecedented service for popular song – that is to say, the genius is as much in the discontinuities, appropriations and fracturings as in the purely “exalted” moments that might tempt one to declare the results to be poetry. He needed the folk idiom to do it, and beat poetics, and references out of the blues tradition and the poetic ballad tradition, and lines stolen from Humphrey Bogart movies. The signature is in the slippages, which his critics ironically fault him for – the crush of extra syllables in an overloaded line, the distortions, like that of the word “mirror” into “meer” to force a rhyme, the repeated collapse of a pretty lyric into abject plea or insult, such as in “Abandoned Love,” which uncorks vast emotion by the suggestion of the speaker’s loss of poise:

I can see the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Oh, something’s a-telling me I wear the ball and chain

My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost
He’s always off somewhere when I need him most
The Spanish moon is rising on the hill
But my heart is a-tellin’ me I love you still

I come back to the town from the flaming moon
I see you in the streets, I begin to swoon
I love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time before I finally disappear?

Some have pointed to more concise or disciplined lyricists who followed Dylan – Leonard Cohen, say. (It’s also possible to point to more concise or disciplined prose artists than Dostoevsky, Balzac or Christina Stead, any of whom tower above others who are more concise and disciplined.) The real point here is that these other lyricists followed, through doors that Dylan’s mad-scientist audacity had smashed open. The best defense I heard of Dylan’s Nobel came not as a defense but as a celebration, because it was spontaneous and immediate: The same morning of the announcement, before the doubters sprang, the poet Claudia Rankine had happened to be booked on WNYC and found herself answering a question about the award from radio host Brian Lehrer. Rankine said, approvingly: “His words are in all our mouths.” What I like in that is the embrace of the somatic power of Dylan’s accomplishment – call it what you will. His words are in my mouth.

In This Article: Bob Dylan

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