Tis the day before Christmas and all through the house the buzz of the refrigerator motor and the ticking of the battery-run clock on the wall blend with the rain dripping from the edge of the roof into small puddles in the stone pathway. Now the kerosene heater's fan joined the trio to make a quartet of the sounds of my silence. In my head is Bob Dylan singing Soon After Midnight, "A gal named Honey / took my money." This new Dylan stays with me like in the early years his album The Times They Are A Changin. At his beginning was Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin In The Wind, even making Man Of Constant Sorrow his own on his first album, and Like A Rolling Stone. I can't think of any song that could top Like A Rolling Stone as a song beautifully conceived, composed, written and performed. I have a Rolling Stones album with Like A Rolling Stone on it; Jagger made it his own, blues style. In youtube parlance, he owned it. All the way along, Bob Dylan has been a Star to me. But since his last five albums he has gone beyond to the place where I hold an artist like Harold Pinter, Constantin Brancusi, Larry Rivers, Marcel Duchamp, Patrick White, William Faulkner, John Berryman, Mona van Duyn. Dylan is in that level of my respect for artists. Others I read and see with appreciation and sometimes awe, but with these people I am in the presence of something so great, great in immense vastness, that I am in full appreciation of everything by these artists and several others, too many to list, Chinese writer Gao Xingjian among them.
I find when I hear Dylan now, after listening to him all my adult life, I am hearing the poet, who to my way of seeing is a great poet and songwriter in one, the great American poet, the Whitman of his time. Sometimes at the end of the day when I'm done chasing the moon, I'll click the remote to start the Dylan album. It has stayed in the cd player since the day it arrived in the house. I'll sit back, turn out the light and hear every word of the whole album like watching an audio movie. I hesitate to call him the great American poet, because it sounds like nonsense, like The Best, Number One, a Ten, unless it really is the case. Calling Whitman the great American poet sounds right to my ear. I try to think of another for that position and can't do it, unless it might be John Berryman, but that doesn't fit somehow, yet. It may in the future. But it fits Dylan at least as much as it fits Whitman. A new Bob Dylan album is the same, to my mind and ear, as a new book of poetry by Robert Lowell, great poetry. Lowell's book of poems, Notebook 1967-1968, is one I must sit down with again in near future. My first time through it, I read it front to back like a book of prose. It scorched the tips of my hair almost as much as the first reading of Robinson Jeffers' Selected Poems. Yes, Jeffers. Jeffers blows my mind with poetry the same way Bob Dylan does. We have a lot of great American poetry.
I have loved about Dylan from the beginning that he is writing poetry in the song form of the day, rock, which Dylan kicked off. Before Dylan went electric it was called rock n roll. From Dylan on, it was rock. His poems are contemporary concerns, everyday life observations, stories both nonfiction and fiction. I imagine a future where the collected Dylan songbook is firmly in the American tradition like the Carter Family songbook for traditional musicians of the mountains. Dylan will go through time with a name up there with Shakespeare, Mozart and Tolstoy. Dylan's integrity has been a model for my own, like Gore Vidal has been in another vein, politically. At the same time I make these lofty exclamations about the artist still known as Bob Dylan, it's totally without concern about his private life, people he's shit along the way, women who divorced him, his junkie son, or even his spiritual life. I don't think if we met there would be any more to it than a handshake and a how-ya-do. That'd be it. What can I say? Yer really cool, man. I'm a nutcase living out in the mountain; he's a multi-millionaire businessman in charge of a tremendous staff of musicians, roadies, managers, recording studio, accountants, gofers, hangers-on and probably in his mind an infinite list of responsibilities and obligations when all he wanted to do was make music. With all that, and it compounded by the major trials that go with tremendous wealth and international fame, he continues to write songs that get better in a stairstep climb, much like Harold Pinter's plays in that way.
It doesn't seem far-fetched at all that Dylan needs the Nobel Prize in poetry, not for his personal sake, but for balance in the universe. Even better is to be with Tolstoy and James Joyce, distinguished for not winning the Nobel. How many poets have people wearing tshirts with their pictures and names on them? How many poets can fill a huge auditorium for a reading? How many poets sell millions of copies of every new book? You say he's a songwriter, not a poet? I say nearly every, if not every, living American poet is influenced by Dylan's writing in varying degrees per individual under 70. He took poetry back to music where it came from. Chinese poetry through the centuries was written to traditional tunes. The French poet Apollinaire wrote his poems to what we call classical music. Read his poem Zone slowly in the flow of Pachelbel's Canon while listening to it. Dylan gave his poetry to a world of people who don't read poetry anymore, except a few here and there, like a few people here and there like to listen to old-time fiddle and banjo music. That's how it is with art forms. Art goes unnoticed in pop culture but by a few unafraid of being regarded retarded by the tube-gawkers. A poet I would call Dylan's equal as poet is Louise Gluck, though she is speaking only to some of the people who read contemporary poetry. I believe I could read different poems of hers as frequently as I listen to Dylan songs. Her poem Averno I could read happily as many times as I've heard Like A Rolling Stone.