Response to David Orr re: Bob Dylan

I greatly enjoyed reading David Orr’s latest “On Poetry” column, in which he discusses Bob Dylan’s elevation to poet-status by the Swedish Academy. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I feel somewhat compelled to write a rebuttal, although I think I agree on many of Orr’s points. I simply disagree with the conclusions he draws from them.

To begin, since this is a partisan struggle to begin with, where one is either for Bob-Dylan-as-Nobel-Laureate, or against Bob-Dylan-as-Nobel-Laureate, I should state my own deeply ambiguous position. That is to say, I find it absolutely wonderful that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for literature, but I think the award comes several decades too late, on the one hand, and on the other hand, I can think of many more deserving bards who should probably should have received the prize before Bob Dylan: namely artists like Robert Johnson, Langston Hughes and Jimi Hendrix. My reasons for this are, just like all the decisions by the Swedish Academy, largely political, but they are culturally important as well. That is to say it’s important to honor the tradition whence the artistry comes, and Bob Dylan, by his own acknowledgment, is building largely off that tradition. In any case, this is more of a side note, as the thrust of Orr’s article was what it means to award a singer-songwriter the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it’s this argument I’m most interested in addressing.

Orr does a wonderful job of building up arguments for why song lyrics should be considered poetry, and then he deconstructs – or maybe it’s better to say he interrogates – each of those claims, and comes to the conclusion that they are all deeply problematic. The first point that he deals with is that song lyrics, when printed on a page, often look like poetry. Orr writes: “But they’re very rarely printed on a page, at least for the purpose of being read as poems. Mostly they’re printed so that people can figure out what Eddie Vedder is saying in “Yellow Ledbetter.” This is an amusing way of dismissing Eddie Vedder as a possible contender for poet, but it ignores the fact that all throughout the second half of the 20th century, plenty of poetry has been meant for performance. Spoken-word poetry is poetry; it cannot be considered anything but poetry, as it is defined by the very word. When people go hear spoken word poetry, they go to “listen to these poems.” Many spoken word poems are never written down. In fact, a New Yorker Radio Hour podcast has Bob Dylan describing the poetry of Greenwich Village street poet William “Big” Brown as “the best poetry he had ever heard.” Which leads us to the point about the Ancient Greeks. I agree wholeheartedly with Orr when he writes, “the fact that a group of people thought about something a certain way nearly three millenniums ago doesn’t seem like a compelling argument for thinking the same way today.” However, Orr’s conception of poetry is ignoring the changes that happened in poetry over the last hundred years. Street poets, spoken-word poets, and poetry as performance has changed poetry radically over the last hundred years. If poetry did not change it would become a moribund art. But Orr is describing poetry as if there have been no dramatic changes in the art form between the publication of “The Wasteland” in 1922 and today, and that strikes me as deeply problematic itself.

This leads us directly into Orr’s argument about the music. While it’s true that a song is a union of music and words, which allows songwriters to get away with even the sloppiest phrasing, Orr ignores the importance of genre in songwriting. Genres such as blues and folk music, the tradition which Dylan is coming out of, are deeply interested in language. This is something that Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown recognized very early on, and used to their advantage as “traditional” poets. Moreover, traditions like spoken-word gave rise to rap, which, beginning (arguably) with a group that defined themselves as “The Last Poets,” has often been self-consciously literary. This, again, is just another aspect of how poetry has changed over the last hundred years. To be sure, there are still plenty of traditional poets writing in the traditional words-on-page manner, but to deny that poetry has expanded beyond this is to guard an outdated conception of poetry. Changes in poetry are always met with resistance, of course. Thus, we have Peter Bayne, in 1875, writing of Walt Whitman:

The “Leaves of Grass,” under which designation Whitman includes all his poems, are unlike anything else that has passed among men as poetry. They are neither in rhyme nor in any measure known as blank verse; and they are emitted in spurts or gushes of unequal length, which can only by courtesy be called lines. Neither in form nor in substance are they poetry.

Of course, no one today denies that Whitman was a poet, and most agree he was a first-class poet; similarly, I suspect no one in a hundred years will deny that Bob Dylan is a poet. If people will not bestow the same honor on Kid Rock, it’s because Kid Rock has never fashioned himself as a poet, nor has he been interested in the poetic tradition the way Dylan has; Bob Dylan, coming out of the folk and blues traditions, publishing an (admittedly unreadable) experimental novel, and working with canonized poets such as Allen Ginsberg – and not seeming so far away from the Ginsbergian aesthetic himself – has most definitely fashioned himself as a poet, and is coming out of a very American tradition of poetry, where the line between music and poetry has blurred.

The most interesting point comes next. Orr rightly points out that by bestowing the term poet on Dylan, we are bestowing him with an honorific. Orr writes, “poetry has an unusually large and ungrounded metaphoric scope,” and this is true. Shelley told us long ago that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and suddenly everything became possible. Poetry became elevated to a level heretofore unknown, and poets have since become something like sacred priests. While I’m critical of this attitude, mostly because of the poetry-as-religion connotations implicit within it, it is nevertheless fair to say that poets, if poetry is to stay a vital art form, should remain relevant to more than just a select few, and I think poetry’s intense focus on language should be praised. So, by bestowing the honorific title of “poet” on those musical artists whose lyrics move us deeply, we are making poetry – which is to say, that close attention to language which defamilarizes the everyday and makes us look at the world anew –relevant beyond the academies and the not-very-widely-read magazines aimed at selective audiences. (read: white, college educated, upper-middle class) This is basically to say that poetry, especially good poetry, deserves the connotation of the sublime it has been awarded. Moreover, there is no confusion about where the metaphor ends and reality begins, except in the arts. As Orr admits, we all know when someone says, “that jump shot was pure poetry,” – that this has nothing to do with the creation of poetry. But any work of art containing language has the potential to challenge us, and rightly so. How do we classify Jean Toomer’s Cane? How do we classify Andre Breton’s Nadja? How, for that matter, do we classify Goethe’s nearly-unproducable Faust? As soon as language-as-a-central-concern is introduced into an art-work, the possibility of poetry arises.

Orr is right when he says Bob Dylan partly received the award because he fits the bill for the idea of a poet. This is clear enough, and this goes back to my political argument at the beginning. But just because Dylan fits the bill, well, that’s no reason to deny him the prize either. As for the prizes being awarded one-way, where musicians are recognized as poets, but poets never as musicians, suffice it to say that John Ashberry doesn’t produce albums, and so he will never be awarded a Grammy. However, Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly is built up of tracks that, line by line, develop the poem Lamar recites at the end of the album, – a poem that is unambiguously a poem, as it is recited as such, without music – did win the Grammy in 2016. Kendrick Lamar is a poet. Clearly. Just as Bob Dylan is; and I would have been delighted to see Lamar win both the Grammy and the Nobel Prize for Literature. But, then, I suspect that’s too radical a step for the Academy to take anytime in the next fifty years.

– Whit Frazier

Music Lessons

Amanda makes music with her hands;
I watch her from the back of the room:
She stretches, coughs and yawns,
While her fingers fire like rubberbands.

Chloe makes music with her nose,
I watch her next to me, playing tunes:
She whistles, hums, and chirps,
And her nostrils bloom like a musical rose.

Maya makes music with her eyes,
I watch her watch like wandering blues:
She hums through pauses, gazing, glows,
And greets my song with sly surprise.

-Whit Frazier, 2004

Story of a Poem about a Girl

when I kiss her she runs away.

I write dialogues about children in love and for an unwitting while, am one. halfway into the failing dialogue she shows up at the door.

I didn’t think you’d come, I tell her.

the way she laughs reminds me of all my Whitman.

back out past the doors on the bench overlooking construction we talk about cities and writing, youth and flight.

I didn’t think I would either, she says.

the small dirty hills of cigarette butts and litter are romantic today. the sun is too pleasantly warm. she looks nervous and she is.

small paper cups carry coffee. the world is heavy with construction, tobacco and coffee. an hour passes.

back inside with time on the other side there’s a half finished manuscript about children in love. it’s easier to write and more difficult.

she has eyes that grow wide as green universes, her face gets small and pale in the sun. beneath the curve of her hair sometimes small shadows are birthmarks. this kind of dialogue is very hard to ignore and even harder to write.

some of the banalities I’ve allowed my children say is suddenly very obvious. if my reader’s no longer myself let me say that I will never finish editing these stories.


I meet her for the first time and it’s three days ago. she’s a friend’s friend.

meet Katey, someone presumably says.

hello Katey, the pleasure’s all mine. (and it really is)

maybe I drink too much or dance with her and go away unchanged.


spring in Strawberry is strange:

this year winter really held out. it got tediously cold.

the day after I meet Katey finally feels warm. I sleep in late.

early in the afternoon I do the things people do in the early afternoon: shower, go to the grocery store, make lunch, drink. by twilight I’m challenging Shakespeare:

there’s no question Marlowe was the superior poet!

to which perplexed friends respond, well, regardless of how anyone feels about the matter, there’s definitely a question.

by the evening it’s god.

the sky is a warm evening blue through the open window and we feel like we’re in prison. after prolonged hours we’re driving each other crazy with our alcohol and conversation. someone suggests going out. we swing by the bar because we reach it before we reach a decision.

it turns out to be a bad place to go to escape conversation and alcohol.

he’s been on this Shakespeare kick all night, friends explain to Katey and her friend when, hours later they show up unexpectedly at the bar.

we thought you all might be here, Katey’s friend says. so we figured we’d drop by.

Katey smiles a lot and she laughs even more.

returning to the table with another unfortunate drink in hand, I notice that Katey and her friend are engaged in a game of chess.

the bar is dim and small. the tables are old and wooden and lopsided. the music’s bad. I sit down next to Katey.

Katey smiles a lot and she laughs even more.

she plays well. she doesn’t like most of my advice and she shouldn’t. when she laughs she turns her head and looks at me and her eyes go wide and green. she holds a gaze like nothing I’ve seen.

her laugh and her eyes make her look awestruck. this kind of dialogue is very hard to ignore and even harder to write.

we win.

but it’s well past time for me to be in bed. my head spins on the walk home. friends are worried. back in my room everything looks small and confining. where did the day go? what did I do?

going home can feel empty as mirrors sometimes.


sometime sunday early afternoon the telephone wakes me up.


it’s Katey’s friend. did I wake you? she asks.

it’s alright. listen, about last night-

we’re making brunch, she says. come over.

I’m still welcome?

she laughs. just come by.

shaving, showering, heading out the door with my head pounding I feel convinced it’s a trap. they plan to poison me or something, revenge for last night’s behavior. this hangover might kill me first.

spring in Strawberry is strange.

it’s cold outside and drizzling hail. what happened to yesterday’s weather and the sun? the gray sky and my stupidity combine to create a pretty unpleasant effect.

a couple other people are there when I arrive. a chessboard is on the table.

Katey smiles. chess, she says and softly. she looks at me, and her eyes are wide.

someone slaps my shoulder. jesus, how do you feel today?

I lie. just fine.

really. if you could’ve seen yourself last night.

Katey’s still looking at me.

I go out onto the patio for a cigarette. a couple minutes pass free from moral defamation.

I need your help, I hear Katey say from inside. looking through the screen door I see her playing a game of chess.

no fucking way.

let me finish this first, I tell her.

yeah, and she laughs. it’s better when you jump in halfway through.

it’s cold outside and wet. the cigarette’s making me nauseous. I come back inside and sit down next to Katey. I do this very deliberately and politely.

I leave a modest distance between us.

she turns and looks at me smiling. that gaze again. she holds it.

I look thoughtfully at the chessboard.

she finds this funny. I can tell.

her opponent’s good and so is she, but my head isn’t. she contradicts all of my suggestions.

we win.

we make an unbeatable team, I tell her.

she’s looking at me again. I know.


after brunch, Katey and her friend and a few other friends go out for a long walk down to Strawberry pond.

I stay put with a couple of the roommates as lazy as I am.

you told her she was your girlfriend last night, laughs one of them over coffee.

too weird for me, says another.

well, she seems to have taken it all in stride, I say.

I think I’m challenging them, or maybe just myself.

true enough, but she might just be laughing at you.


true enough, she might just be laughing at me.

ay, there’s the rub and my friend was shrewd enough to know it and to know to say it.


Katey, after all, she’s just a kid.

she was a child and I was a child

I want to go home, I say it all day long but they keep me there.

it’s a lazy Sunday, we’ll have dinner together later and then go out to the bar.

go out to the bar? I don’t know if I like the suggestion or hate it.

sure, why not? Katey’s only here a few more days.

which is true. Katey’s from Germany and she’s visiting my friend after touring several American cities. she’s been to New York and then to Washington, Philadelphia and Boston too. she’s spending the last few days here in Strawberry.

when does she leave anyway? I ask.


so soon.

so soon.


something happens during the day. it must be the conversation.

Katey made me nervous at brunch, but now that she’s back I’m petrified. why?

she smiles and looks at me and we sit alone together while they’re making dinner.

how was the walk? I ask.

(an easy one, I know, but it has the advantage of sounding polite, relevant and interested.)

it was nice. a little bit cold, but not too bad.


where did you go?

just to the pond. we walked around a while, went to the café and read some.

it sounds nice.

she looks ruffled and tired and damp from walking. she’s sitting on the couch next to me. I can smell the shampoo in her hair.

I tell her about my travels abroad, about Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

she talks about hers. she’s been everywhere: Rome, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Greece, Amsterdam, et cetera.

she’s been living in London for the past two years. she’s German and speaks with an English accent. she calls roommates flatmates. she’s fluent in German, English, French and Italian.

she clearly has a lot more to talk about than I do. which, right now, is fine by me. I could listen to her for hours.


at the bar that evening I feel a little more relaxed. it’s dim and small. the tables are old and wooden and lopsided. the music’s bad.

Katey’s sitting next to me. I’m watching how much I drink. change keeps falling out of my pocket.

Katey’s laughing and picking it up and putting it on the table.

you’re as silent as the tomb tonight, Katey’s friend says to me.

didn’t I tell you I died last night?

Katey laughs. really? I hope it wasn’t my fault.

did you ever read the story by Borges about the priest who dies but doesn’t know he’s dead? someone asks.


Borges wanted to be a poet you know.

did he?


he wrote a bunch of poetry all throughout his life.

that’s all he started out doing.

but his real strength came through in his short stories.

I wonder, I wonder out loud, if there was ever a poet that wanted to be a writer. and no one paid any

attention to his fiction, only his poetry. so that he had to spend his whole life as a poet when all he wanted to do was write fiction?

isn’t it usually the other way around?

that’s what makes it so funny.

Katey looks at me and smiles. I’m learning to like it.

for the first time ever I hold her eyes a while and smile back again.


later that night after everyone’s gone to bed, Katey and I stay up late to play a game of chess.

but we’re a team, I tell her.

we’ll see about that.

for a cup of coffee, I say.

we’re both tired and a little tipsy. like everyone, she has her own language. I stumble through it: something about her eyes and her smile and the way she can hold a gaze.

chess complements this language perfectly.

I hadn’t realized how sensual the game could be.


I haven’t gotten away unchanged.

several things clue me into this suspicion:

one, instead of taking the bus I walked home last night.

two, I’m not sure I can handle her coming by my work for coffee.

three, all day long I hope she comes by my work for coffee.

and besides, I’m tired because I couldn’t sleep last night.

the day goes slow.

it’s a beautiful spring day.

spring in Strawberry is strange.

there’s no reason why she’d show up. how is today different from any other?

leaving the office for lunch strikes me as the greatest kind of hubris and daring.


I write dialogues about children in love and for an unwitting while, am one. halfway into the failing dialogue she shows up at the door.

I didn’t think you’d come, I tell her.

she’s just walked into the office, looking flustered and embarrassed.

neither did I.

there’s a bench out back, I say.

we get coffee and sit out back. it’s hideous. it overlooks a dumpster and a construction sight.

it feels romantic. the sun is too pleasantly warm. we slouch a little into each other.

how was your day? I ask her.

nice, she says. I walked all over Strawberry. yours?

boring. I don’t do much here.


you must be the luckiest guy on earth, she says.

it could be worse, but that’s going too far.

what do you want to do when you grow up?

her eyes grow wide as green universes.

I don’t know. what about you?

I travel too much, she says. I don’t know. I never stay in the same place very long.

I think I’d like to write stories, I tell her.

people walking in and out of the building look at us like people look at young lovers in early spring. it makes everything feel uncomfortably nice.



I used to paint, she says.

used to?

I quit painting.


I don’t know. I always liked music more anyway.

yeah? you’re a strange girl.

you think so, do you? she smiles again. you’re a strange boy.

that’s what I was doing when you got here.


I was writing a story.

what kind of story?

a short story.

I bet you’re going to end up a poet that always wanted to be a writer. she laughs. so do I.

she has this way of calling me on my conceit.

maybe so, I say.

so you want to be like Hemingway or something?

like Hemingway? no. why do you say that?

I don’t know. saturday night, for example.

jesus, I say. that’s not fair.

isn’t it?

poor Hemingway.

she slaps my shoulder. exactly.

there’s nothing better in the world than being out here with her.

maybe when you’re famous and I’m an English literature professor, I’ll teach your books.

professor then, eh?

she shrugs. I don’t know.

do you know, she says, how strange it is that in two days I’ll be back in Freiburg and you’ll still be here?

I don’t say anything.

America’s not at all like I expected, she says.

what did you expect?

I thought it would be boring.


back inside with time on the other side there’s a half finished manuscript about children in love. it’s easier to write and more difficult.

she has eyes that grow wide as green universes, her face gets small and pale in the sun. beneath the curve of her hair sometimes small shadows are birthmarks. this kind of dialogue is very hard to ignore and even harder to write.


it’s Katey’s last night in the States. we’re at the bar playing chess, the two of us.

the bar is small and dim. the tables are old and wooden and lopsided. the music’s pretty good.

I’m fluent in her language. it’s divine with chess and small amounts of alcohol.

time flies and it’s last call.

outside it’s drizzling and a little chilly. I walk her home.

after all, it’s already tomorrow.

so what will I tell everyone when I get home? she asks. that I met a drunken American writer?

after all, I say. I want to be just like Hemingway.

she slaps my shoulder. oh you! see I knew it.

I’m joking of course. I look at her. I just want to write.

she smiles slyly. you just want to be adored.

she has this way of calling me on my conceit.

you know half the time you’re full of shit.

I laugh. do you think anything really exists?

it can’t, I suppose.

why not?

why should it?

it seems like it does.

seems. she looks down. it’s so strange, she says.


this. she’s not smiling anymore. I love it, but I get so tired of running from city to city sometimes.


tomorrow I’m going to be gone.

that’s true.

when are you coming to Freiburg?

soon, I say.

she laughs. no you’re not.

I don’t say anything.

it’s just-

apparently she doesn’t know what to say either.

it is strange, I say. later on it will be really strange. and it’s only been three days.

we laugh.

but I won’t see you again, she says. that doesn’t make any sense.

it doesn’t make any sense at all.

it’s not fair, you know?

and it isn’t fair. and it doesn’t make any sense. three days. how could this happen? what is it we’re even talking about? everything takes on the vague urgency of everything’s uncertain.

every evening has to end, she says.

we’re in front of her friend’s building.

so this is it, she says.

yeah, I guess so.

we look at each other. there are linguistic depths to this language I hadn’t thought about.

goodnight, she says.

I watch her walk up the steps to the building.

going home can feel empty as mirrors sometimes.

Katey, I say.

she turns around. I run up the stairs. I’m not clever enough to pretend I really had something to say. she knows I didn’t anyway. I hate this. I take her hands. she’s looking at me like she’s awestruck. I want to give her flowers, gifts, alms, apologies.

when I kiss her she runs away.

— (Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)