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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > December 2016 > He’s a poet and don’t we know it

He’s a poet and don’t we know it

Bob Dylan reaches his audience with the power of the best writers. The Nobel committee was right to place him in their company, says

“It will be a good joke on us all if, in 50 years or so, Dylan is regarded as a significant figure in English poetry,” the music critic Donal Henahan wrote in 1967. “Not Mr Thomas, the late Welsh bard, but Bob, the guitar-picking American balladeer.” Well, the punchline has come and no one is laughing, except possibly Bob Dylan. After 16 days of enigmatic silence, America’s most honoured living artist at last acknowledged his latest accolade, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and even agreed to attend the award ceremony in December, “if it’s at all possible.” Possible? Why wouldn’t it be? What does he mean?

As usual with Dylan, there is no good answer, because he cares much less than we do. Even as an apprentice, yet to write his first songs, “my mind was strong like a trap and I didn’t need any guarantee of validity,” he wrote (in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One). Not “validation”—the affirming squeeze of the shoulder—but validity: official sanction, the stamped passport. Like all hero-artists, Dylan travels alone, without documents. He is “vague about his antecedents and birthplace,” the New York Times reported nine months after Dylan arrived in Manhattan, more than 50 years ago, a 19-year-old college dropout beginning his rapid conquest of the Greenwich Village folk-music hatchery. From the start the press played along. The New Yorker music writer Nat Hentoff conspired to spread the story that Dylan, in reality a coddled son of the middle class from northern Minnesota, “ran away from home seven times—at 10, at 12, at 13, at 15, at 15 and a half, at 17, and at 18. His travels included South Dakota, New Mexico, Kansas, and California.”

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.
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