Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature is such surprising and welcoming news. I’m far from a Dylan expert, but I love the man for what he’s contributed to the culture. A decade ago I saw him perform live at Penn State.
I first heard Dylan when I was thirteen—a live version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” from the Concert for Bangladesh—and I have been a fan ever since.
It was fortuitous that I discovered Dylan just as I was learning what poetry is and how it works. Poetry “means” of course, but it also, and even more basically, “sounds.” Typically today, we read verse on the printed page, but Bob Dylan’s verse we first hear: “skipping reels of rhyme, to your tambourine in time;” “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face;” “like a corkscrew to my heart, ever since we’ve been apart;” and “I hear the ancient footsteps, like the motion of the sea/ sometimes I turn there’s somebody there/ other times it’s only me.”
Dylan’s themes are, of course, multiple: politics, the conflicts of the heart, war and peace, etc. But his dominant preoccupation, from beginning to end of his career, is the God of the Bible. Listen again to “With God On Our Side,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “To Make You Feel My Love,” “Every Grain of Sand,” and “When He Returns,” if you want the evidence. He stands very much in the tradition of the great prophets and sages of Israel; like Jacob, he has spent a lifetime wrestling with the Lord.