Kurt Vonnegut on Bob Dylan: He “Is the Worst Poet Alive”

Image by Daniele Pratitand Ben North­ern via Flckr Com­mons

As if life weren’t fraught enough, we’re bar­rel­ing toward the 10th anniver­sary of author Kurt Vonnegut’s death.

So it goes.

Sev­er­al years before he died, Von­negut penned an essay called “Know­ing What’s Nice,” in which he stat­ed:

If I should ever die, God for­bid, let this be my epi­taph: ‘The only proof he need­ed for the exis­tence of God was music.’

“If I should ever…God for­bid…”

Bless his cranky human­ist heart, if that isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Those out­side the inner cir­cle can only spec­u­late as to whether his remains rest eter­nal­ly beneath his pre­ferred epi­taph. Their where­abouts are not a mat­ter of pub­lic record. As one Inter­net wag sur­mised, he “prob­a­bly did­n’t want some van­dal sono­fabitch writ­ing Every­thing was Beau­ti­ful and Noth­ing Hurt on it.”

The wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed Armistice Day pas­sage from Vonnegut’s nov­el Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons sup­ports the notion of music as some­thing he revered uni­ver­sal­ly:

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juli­et, for instance. And all music is. 

In real­i­ty, the ama­teur clar­inet play­er’s ear was a bit more dis­cern­ing:

 I hate rap. The Bea­t­les have made a sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion. Bob Dylan, how­ev­er, is the worst poet alive. He can maybe get one good line in a song, and the rest is gib­ber­ish.

So he told Hus­tler in 1991, in response to a ques­tion about his musi­cal tastes. Nev­er did get around to telling the inter­view­er what he actu­al­ly liked. Accord­ing to his daugh­ter, Nan­nette, the list would’ve includ­ed Dave Brubeck, the Statler Broth­ers, and The Music Man sound­track.

Von­negut didn’t live to see Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture last year, but sev­er­al com­men­ta­tors exhumed his dis­mis­sive quote to under­score that not every­one was hap­py to see a singer-song­writer award­ed such a pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary prize.

Mean­while, Dylan’s fans are not wait­ing for him to die to talk about the ways in which his music has helped them nav­i­gate through life, much as the jazzmen Von­negut saw play­ing live in Depres­sion-era Indi­anapo­lis trans­port­ed him to a bet­ter place:

…what music is, I don’t know. But it helps me so.

Fans have cre­at­ed eleven playlists inspired by Von­negut on the music shar­ing site 8tracks, includ­ing one that fea­tures Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall. (“Per­fect for cap­tur­ing Von­negut’s vibe” enthused one inno­cent young com­menter.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

In 1988, Kurt Von­negut Writes a Let­ter to Peo­ple Liv­ing in 2088, Giv­ing 7 Pieces of Advice

Dis­cov­er Ray Brad­bury & Kurt Vonnegut’s 1990s TV Shows: The Ray Brad­bury The­ater and Wel­come to the Mon­key House

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (7)
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  • renbar says:

    Von­negut is one of the great Amer­i­can pop writ­ers of the last half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Bob is the most influ­en­tial artists of the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. If not Bob, who?

  • timothy says:

    Dif­fi­cult to tell how good a poet one is by the songs they write. Entire­ly dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines. In song, the writer needs to make space for the music and melody. In poet­ry, one uses (and counts on) the silence. The way the words (sounds, syl­la­bles) are allowed to breathe with­in the open air of poet­ry, is very dif­fer­ent than the con­fines and busi­ness (read: busy-ness) of lyric writ­ing.

    For instance, I fell in love with Leonard Cohen’s poet­ry, long before I paid any atten­tion to (or even knew about) his folk career. And in doing so, I must admit, I don’t care for 90% of his songs. They, to me, lose some­thing. I’ll take a con­cise, bit­ing, rev­e­la­to­ry five-line gem of poem over almost any song of his any day.

    And I’ll add that I’ll agree with Von­negut in this sense; Dylan was more than will­ing to use lazy rhymes and gib­ber­ish to even­tu­al­ly get to a pay-off, as (or more) often than he was effi­cient, dense. or con­sis­tent in the qual­i­ty of his lines.

  • hans altena says:

    I pity some­one who dis­miss­es songs like It’s All­right Ma (I’m Only Bleed­ing) as gib­ber­ish, he sure­ly miss­es out on some­thing. I have read a lot of poet­ry, but that song for me tops any­thing that is writ­ten.

  • Michal Eidman says:

    I well recall set­tling into my 14th row seat at Madi­son Square Gar­den in Decem­ber 1976 for the Hur­ri­cane Carter ben­e­fit show put on by Bob’s Rolling Thun­der Revue, when my broth­er told me to look to our right and there was Kurt Von­negut sit­ting next to us.

  • Mike Anderson says:

    As much as I appre­ci­ate and respect the work of Kurt Von­negut, I would not go to him for music rec­om­men­da­tions. The Statler Broth­ers?

  • hans altena says:

    Boy, his taste in music is not quite mine, and I sigh in regard to his capac­i­ty of over­look­ing some of the best lyrics, which I do regard as poet­ry, writ­ten in this age, like indeed It’s All­right Ma (the best!) and Des­o­la­tion Row and Visions of Johan­na, Tan­gled up in Blue and Idiot Wind and Every Grain of Sand and Jok­er­man, Ain’t Talkin’ and Pay in Blood and Scar­lett Town, just to name a few, but maybe he was just pissed that his good books in those days of the nineties, where lit­er­a­ture was los­ing its impor­tance already, did not get as much atten­tion… It’s sad when a great man needs to look down on anoth­er genius because of dis­en­chante­ment with his own posi­tion. For me a lot of mod­ern poet­ry is too chaot­i­cal­ly abstract and lacks rhythm and rhyme (and I do not mean only end rhyme, just the beau­ty of sounds that make a poem sing), yet maybe that’s my fail­ure.

  • Brian Ploss says:

    Tom Waits

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