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Bob Dylan -- A Poet for Our Times
Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
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 its perils.

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 inevitability.

"I accept chaos," he wrote. "I am not sure it accepts me."

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 point. 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

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