Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2001 in the San
Bob Dylan -- A Poet for Our Times
by Tom Chaffin
BACK IN the early '80s, I was having dinner with poet
and singer Leonard Cohen, and we were talking about Bob Dylan. Cohen had
had dinner with Dylan a few nights earlier, and we were discussing
Dylan's current slump in popularity.
He had recently embraced evangelical Christianity and
produced a series of religious albums that troubled many fans.
Cohen thought the reaction unfair, and was particularly
galled by a review blasting Dylan's album, "Shot of Love," because it
included "only one masterpiece," which was Dylan's poignant hymn, "Every
Grain of Sand."
"My God! Only one masterpiece," Cohen exclaimed, as we
ate at a restaurant in Montreal. "Does this guy have any idea what it
takes to produce a single masterpiece? I think
anything he does merits serious attention."
Tomorrow, as Dylan turns 60, and I think about my own
attention to his work,
I find myself agreeing with Cohen.
After all, I am in good company. Not long ago,
England's Poet Laureate Andrew Motion called Dylan one of the great
artists of the century.
Yes, Dylan has had his ups and downs. At the moment,
you would have to say that Dylan is on a roll. He recently won an Oscar
for the song, "Things Have Changed."
Whether he is up or down with public admiration, I've
always found Dylan worthy of my attention. I know of no other
contemporary poet who has drawn such an unflinching bead on our age and
One goes to different poets at different times for
different reasons: Shakespeare for insights into the human heart and
just about anything else; T. S. Eliot for perspectives on human
alienation; Wallace Stevens for epistemological ruminations, and Yeats
for the vagaries of passion and memory.
Dylan, drawing on the romantic traditions of Byron,
Whitman, Keats and even Woody Guthrie, has written with varying degrees
of insight on all of those subjects and others.
He achieves his greatest powers however as a social
visionary, as heard in his three classic rock albums from the 1960s:
"Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on
Blonde." The three collections made Dylan an international icon.
With their Cubist-like shifting perspectives, haunted
visions of an impersonal, uncertain future in which even language is
undermined, songs such as "Like a Rolling Stone,"
"Desolation Row" and "Ballad of a Thin Man" captured the spirit of our
day and time.
Most trenchantly, in this age of the Internet, cloning
and other innovations, technology in Dylan's world still carries an icy
breath. He's never been a Luddite. But in an era in which too many
revere computers and capitalism with the sort of unquestioning
veneration that cargo-cultists reserve for a beached Cessna, Dylan still
understands that relationships between people matter more than those
between people and machines or institutions.
Three years ago, when Dylan released his most recent
album, "Time Out of My Mind," critics noted its conservative tone --
conservative not in its political ideology but in its
longings for lost human connections.
But in Dylan's 1960s works, I find that same yearning
in songs such as "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Like a Rolling Stone." The
surprise is that -- rebel-poet pose notwithstanding -- even the 1960s
Dylan now sounds essentially conservative, even nostalgic.
Contrary to what many critics have assumed, Dylan never
made himself an apologist, much less an advocate, for any particular
vision of the future. Yes, he supported that '60s civil rights and
anti-Vietnam War movements. (Both, by the way, are arguably conservative
-- pro-Constitution, anti-interventionist -- causes.)
For the most part, however, he merely described the
world he envisioned and warned against what seemed, to him, its bland
"I accept chaos," he wrote. "I am not sure it accepts
Typical of great poets, even when Dylan tried, he made
a poor ideologue. Over the years, he flirted with various belief
systems, most notably Marxism, Christianity and Judaism. But he never
stuck with any one for long.
Songs like "Maggie's Farm" and "All Along the
Watchtower" display an abiding wariness of the marketplace and the ways
in which it undermines a proper moral order. But although lionized by
the New Left, Dylan never embraced its systematic anti-capitalism.
Four decades after Dylan recorded his first album --
when many of his early fans have embraced capitalism with a zeal that
would have embarrassed their parents -- his skepticism about the
marketplace remains undiminished. "Are birds free from the chains of
the skyway?" Dylan asked in 1964 in "Ballad in Plain D." He is still
asking that question.
Beyond all his eccentricities and changes in style and
focus, Dylan's oeuvre remains a sustained meditation on the nature of
and limits to human freedoms -- political, economic, existential and
spiritual. To see Dylan as a protest-singer or rebel-poet misses the
Yes, he saw that the times were a'changin', he knew that
something was happening here, and understood that his Mister Jones
didn't have a clue. But nowhere did Dylan advocate, or welcome, change
for its own sake.
"I cannot bring a world quite 'round, Although I patch
it as I can," wrote Wallace Stevens.
We cannot ask poets to give us new worlds -- only to
give us insights into those in which we live. Dylan still manages the
latter task peerlessly, and 36 years after he brought it all back home
to us??? -- that's more than enough.
Tom Chaffin teaches at Emory University. His biography
of explorer John Fremont will be published by Hill and Wang next year.
2001 San Francisco Chronicle
-- Ted Morgan Department of Political Science Lehigh University Maginnes Hall #9 Bethlehem, PA 18015 Phone: (610) 758-3345 Fax: (610) 758-6554
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