For two weeks after the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, Bob Dylan kept the world hung up in his silence.
Per Wastbërg, wasn't happy about that. He chaired the committee that gave Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in literature. After Dylan didn’t respond, Wastbërg told Swedish TV that Dylan’s silence was “impolite and arrogant.”
That was Wastbërg’s interpretation and he wasn't alone. It says more about his expectations than about Dylan. Poets should be polite and decorous, I guess. But was Rimbaud polite? Was Allen Ginsberg decorous?
What did Dylan say to earn this rebuke? Nothing.
That’s the potency of silence.
Dylan’s silence seemed to anger so many—and that’s the beauty of it. It was a gift from the heart of poetry.
Poets know and understand silence. They know its potency as sovereign to the word. There are places where words just can’t do any good. The psalmist went deepest with that question, when he addresses the ultimate: “to you silence is praise.”
But silence is also necessary. W.B. Yeats understood silence as the decisive moment of creativity—the zero point, the beginning, before new words come. It is the just-before where a poet or any artist—or any human—moves upon silence before something new and creative emerges:
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream Her mind moves upon silence.
A poet’s silence is something to contemplate, not condemn.
Yeats gave us a beautiful image of the stillness of contemplation—the long-legged fly on the clear flowing water, the current at the surface and the life active below. This is what a poet does, moves on silence delicate as a water-skater. This is how poets listen—how we all might learn to listen if we would just give up our noise.
The noisy news would scare off any water-skater—the news about Dylan’s no. The instant interpretations of his silence reveal more about the interpreters than they do about the silence. It can’t be understood so quickly, it’s a purely poetic gesture.
What did it mean we incessantly wanted to know. We couldn't let go of it. Was it arrogance or modesty—indifference to the world or attention seeking? Or all those things? Or none.
Now Dylan has said he might show up in Stockholm. In a way it’s a shame. I thought Dylan’s silence much more interesting than any Nobel Prize speech he could possibly give. In his case the award is nearly superfluous. That's how Leonard Cohen sees it: Giving Dylan a Nobel is “like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
Dylan has always eluded his audience as much as he’s engaged it. “Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parkin’ meters.” He’s asked us to consult our own inner sense: “You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows.”
If some read his gesture as contempt, that contempt redoubled itself in response, all because he didn’t hop to and instantly respond to a prize he never sought.
Those who criticize what they can't understand don't see that Dylan already gave us the most beautiful possible response to an award that carries such a heavy load of expectations.
Silence, like any good poem, cries out for interpretation. Dylan has always understood that poetry is not just for the page, that the real writing is upon the heart. Because he's deep into the roots of song, he's understood how poetry can soak in deeply until it reshapes our listening. A lot of modern poetry has lost that great capacity. Maybe we lost it when poetry divorced itself from song, when it could no longer be memorized, and therefore was no longer memorable.
But some poets—Dylan and Cohen and Joni Mitchell—remembered the old ways, the deep ways of song, remembered that poetry was meant for memory, to be carried in consciousness as great lines of poetry are always carried, and as songs are carried, too. They remembered that the roots of poetry are in song and the deepest source of song is silence. That’s where it all begins. Great writing is listening, a listening that begins with silence.
So we saw all the lesser poets and non-poets and haters of poetry condemn Dylan in the name of literature, when really all they craved was their own place in the spotlight he seemed to shun. They projected their own calculations onto his silence, and often what we heard from them sounded surprisingly cynical or self-serving.
Dylan isn’t really a poet, he’s a musician, said the proud poet with few readers. Hmmph, said the would-be Nobel Prize winner in literature who has to wait another year. Too bad some worthy but out-of-print author won’t get that boost in sales, said the publishers.
It was a grand occasion to deprecate a guy who took a deeply original path in poetry. And by the way, as Amit Chadhuri pointed out in the Guardian, Dylan isn’t the first songwriter to win a Nobel. That was Rabindranath Tagore in 1913.
If you want to understand Dylan’s silence, look at what he’s sung about it. Early on, singing of a lover, but really also of his own soul:
My love she speaks like silence Without ideals or violence
Seems like Dylan’s silence provoked plenty of folks who hold up “ideals” of what’s right and proper—with lots of “violence.”
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
In “Love Minus Zero, No Limit,” Dylan gave us his own differential equation of the ratio of love to silence. Words limit and define. Sometimes they betray. Saying you are faithful doesn’t make you faithful, proclaiming you are true doesn’t make you true. In some situations, silence is the best way to speak.
The world reacted in its noisy, worldly way. Dylan was attacked for being himself, for doing what he wants to do, which apparently is not to fly to Sweden in the cold and dark of winter. Maybe Dylan would prefer to do what he does best: writing new songs and singing them.
He rides on the silence like the long-legged fly until he hears the words that come alive in him, words that come up with their own music—as they did for Yeats and William Blake, as they did for Emily Dickinson.
Against that silence is clamor. The clamor of fame, the clamor of others’ expectations. He tries to ward it off, to keep himself attuned to his inner silence. Dylan told us about his priorities back when he first had to deal with fame, back when he was “famous long ago.”
He told us who he was, and that he was going to be who he was… not enslave himself to my expectations or yours.
If you don’t like his silence, it’s not because he never told us. If you don’t get his attitude, you haven’t been listening:
Well, I try my best To be just like I am But everybody wants you To be just like them They sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Now that he’s broken his silence and may be heading to Stockholm, I can’t wait to hear what he has to say next.