Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize and Walt Whitman Smiles

While many people expressed surprise and some even outrage over Bob Dylan’s selection as the Nobel Prize winner for literature, I must admit, I was not surprised and I was extraordinarily pleased. I had always thought of Dylan as a poet. Dylan was the first poet I thought “I got.” He spoke mostly through song, but I heard the poetry of the words. I was introduced to Dylan the poet early on. He wrote a long and rambling poem as the liner notes to one of the first full length vinyl albums I ever owned – Peter, Paul and Mary’s 3rd album – In the Wind. I read it over and over as I listened to that seminal album over and over.

Later as a teacher, I had a slim volume of poetry in my middle school classroom library, Sounds and Silences, edited by young adult author Richard Peck especially for middle schoolers. The book contained several lyrics from Dylan songs.

As I became more immersed in poetry as an adult, I came to view Dylan as the latest link in a long chain of distinctly American voices in poetry, from Walt Whitman, through Carl Sandburg, to Allen Ginsberg. Dylan and Ginsberg were great friends, of course. The much honored (and reviled) poet was prominent on stage and off on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. I also have read that Dylan was a fan of Sandburg, even going so far as taking a pilgrimage to an aging and ailing Sandburg’s home in the 1960s.

Whitman, of course, was long dead before the former Robert Zimmerman was born, but reading the poem below makes me think Walt would have welcomed young Bob, not to mention Sandburg and Ginsberg, to the club.

Poets to Come by Walt Whitman

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental,
               greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

Whitman welcomes “orators, singers, and musicians" to the club, as the Nobel Committee has apparently also begun to do.

One way we can see this American voice across the years is through the all too present existence of war in American history. Each of these poets’ had a response to the wars of their lifetme. For Whitman, it was the Civil War; for Sandburg, WWs I and II. For Ginsberg it was the Cold War and for Dylan, of course, there was the Vietnam War. Here is a look at American war history through the eyes of these four poets. I think the through line is clear.

From The Wound Dresser by Walt Whitman

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

  …………….

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections, Returning, resuming,
I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
 (Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

 The Wars by Carl Sandburg                      
 In the old wars drum of hoofs and the beat of shod feet.
In the new wars hum of motors and the tread of rubber tires.
In the wars to come silent wheels and whirr of rods not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars clutches of short swords and jabs into faces with spears.
In the new wars long range guns and smashed walls, guns running a spit of metal and men falling in tens and twenties.
In the wars to come new silent deaths, new silent hurlers not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars kings quarreling and thousands of men following.
In the new wars kings quarreling and millions of men following.
In the wars to come kings kicked under the dust and millions of men following great causes not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

From America by Allen Ginsberg

America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers' Digest. Her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our filling  stations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Masters of War by Bob Dylan

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten all the triggers
 For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
By the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

@Bob Dylan Music Co.

So congratulations to Bob for this prestigious award and thank you from one long time devotee for keeping the American poetic voice front and center for the world to hear.