Bob Dylan getting this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been a hot topic on the internet and this week I’ve seen more than the usual number of Whitman comparisons reeling in the air.
A critic for the NY Times opined that “Mr. Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman . . .” From the Desert Trip stage, Mick Jagger said, “I want to thank Bob Dylan for an amazing set. We have never shared the stage with a Nobel Prize winner before. Bob is like our own Walt Whitman.” One guy even had the audacity to write “Bob Dylan has surpassed Walt Whitman as the defining American artist, celebrating the capacity for self-invention as the highest form of freedom.”
Bob has put his changeling persona to good use, but the reason he has been given the prize is, according to the Nobel committee, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Just as Whitman did with the American poetry tradition in the 19th century.
Comparisons are odious is an old expression dating from the 15th century, and it’s true that usually it is unhelpful and unfair to compare two different things or persons. Nonetheless there are some interesting similarities between Mr. W and Mr. D.
Iconoclasts, controversial. Their writings celebrate freedom and individuality. There is some mysticism in common and shared themes of war, death and democracy. And the stand on public nudity: “Nakedness in Nature! There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent,” Whitman proclaimed (A Sun-bathed Nakedness), while Dylan has murmured, “I run naked when I can” (11 Outlined Epitaphs).
One difference between them, is that unlike Bob, I’m pretty sure Walt Whitman did not receive any awards in his lifetime. When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, it was labeled “obscene” and literally banned in Boston. Whitman was not a rich man either, for he died in what we call today relative poverty.
Dogging the announcement of Bob’s prize has been the question of whether or not he deserves it, do his lyrics qualify as literature. I think that can be answered with another question: If the Nobel Prize had existed during Whitman’s time, would Whitman be deserving of it?
By the way, Bob has not commented publicly about winning the prize (evidently, he has not even returned the Nobel committee’s calls). He’s currently on the road. The same night as the announcement, he and his band performed in Las Vegas where he played guitar for the first time in four years (on Simple Twist of Fate), and of course, he played at Desert Trip on Friday.
I know Bob admires Walt Whitman and thinks of him as an influence, and I can’t help but wonder what Whitman would think of Dylan’s writing. Would he consider it poetry, literature? I think he would. But that’s just my opinion.
In the poem below, Whitman speaks to the future, and he speaks of his identity and role as an artist, and who knows, perhaps in an moment of mystical prescience, he is also describing a poet to come, a poet who has written surreal, complex, and sometimes beautiful and tender songs from Desolation Row, and has explained them away saying, “It’s all math . . . There’s a definite number of Colt .45s that make up Marlene Dietrich, and you can find that out if you want to.”
Poets to Come
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! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer.
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.
– Walt Whitman