Shelter from the Storm: Dylan Trumps Chemo

Shelter from the Storm: Dylan Trumps Chemo

After the gusty gales of the past four months it was fabulous to celebrate turning a corner in my cancer treatment this Thursday night, when I read some new poems at the Red Hen/Pighog Pigbaby Rides Again poetry party, sharing a stage in the glamorous Paganini Ballroom of Brighton’s Old Ship Hotel with transatlantic barnstormers Maria Jastrzebska, Ciaran O’Driscoll, Hugh Dunkerley, Tom Sissons, Brendan Cleary, Red Hen Press editor Kate Gale and Pighog host John Davies. It being Day 8 of Chemo 5 I’d been worried I’d flag, but somehow my eyes remained open and my legs vertical til midnight – a taste of my new wild self, or perhaps I’d been turbo-charged by Bob Dylan’s surprise Nobel Prize.

As a balladeer, I take Dylan’s win as a tribute to oral literature which should not be honoured simply as the root-field of all poems and novels, but in its own right, as an living tradition. Last year’s crowning of oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, and the early laureateship of Rabindranath Tagore – best known as a poet, but also the author of over 2000 songs – demonstrate that Stockholm obviously agrees. As one of this year’s committee members said, ancient Greek poets used to sing their work – alone and accompanied by the lyre, hence of course ‘lyric poetry’. The ancient Greeks also used to recite longer works with the aid of a staff, striking the floor to the hexameter beat of their epic histories and myths. As the concept of the writer’s ‘voice’ demonstrates, all written literature is deeply historically entwined with oral expression. If Dylan’s songs, in the committee’s view, create “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, they do so often by engaging with American and European lyric poetry. He named himself after Dylan Thomas, after all, and who can’t take heart from the doleful and confessional Relationships have all been bad. / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud.  But there are subtler resonances too. As I said in the intro to one of my poems, quoting the opening of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’:

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wondrin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red

this song certainly qualifies as an aubade, a song or poem for lovers parting at dawn (or in my case, a woman parting from her hair).

By invoking the importance of oral literature I don’t mean that every five years a lyricist or storyteller ought to win the Nobel prize, but if a songwriter has spent a lifetime in a constant quest to mine and transform many of the most significant songwriting genres of their historical period, in so doing challenging and transcending social barriers, and thus the very notion of ‘populism’ – think of how Dylan’s much-derided Christian period has been re-made supreme by the American gospel community – then that person is certainly deserving of the world’s greatest literary accolade. As to the cynical response that Dylan was honoured primarily as a Scandi rebuke to all things Trump, I listened again to Blood on the Tracks today – songs which, in plotting an imploding relationship, give conventional narrative structure a bitter twist of genius – and thought that one small measure of the album’s timeless nature is the prophetic ventriloquism of ‘Idiot Wind’. Consider the vainglorious misogyny of the opening verses and chorus:

Someone’s got it in for me
They’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick
But when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray
And took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks
And when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
People see me all the time
And they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas
Images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday
You had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years
You didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your mouth
Blowing down the back roads headin’ south
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

These lines could spring like toads from the mouth of the Donald himself. (Compare ‘I can’t help it if I’m lucky’ to ‘I guess that makes me clever.’) Despite the continuing creepy echos of the current US presidential election, though (I noticed at the ceremony / Your corrupt ways had finally made you blind) the song’s not of course about a feud between two corrupt politicians, and in the last two lines the speaker displays a self-awareness of complicity in the train wreck that the average fascist sociopath could never reach – We’re idiots, babe / It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves. As many Americans can’t, due to the rampant greed of tax-dodging moguls like Trump. Not that there’s anyone quite like Trump, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest Clinton’s hawkish hard-lines and alleged misdemeanors put her in the same category as his vile, abusive, post-truth hater’s burlesque.

But back to the Greeks, for ages I heard ‘Idiot wind’ as ‘Aeolian wind’ . . . Aeolus being the ancient Greek god of the wind, perhaps the dust bowl Homer was deliberately pronouncing it that way. Whichever way that particular breeze blows, my chemo cap’s off to Mr Dylan – maybe the rumours are right and he’s a cantankerous workaholic, a nightmare to work or live with, but I’m glad that, as the song says:

At the final end he won the wars / after losing every battle.


Glad you enjoyed the post Bridget – and agree! Have an amazing time freewheelin’ in Mexico and we’ll have a Dylan evening when you’re back. xx

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