A Hard Reign | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

A Hard Reign 

Alex Caldiero takes up the case for Bob Dylan as Nobel-worthy poet.

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Bob Dylan has always been a mercurial figure in the arenas of music and literature, and being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year has seemed to sharpen the polarizing effect of his expressive vision. There's been a good deal of controversy over whether the award should be given to someone who's made his name overwhelmingly in the world of popular music. Local poet and scholar Alex Caldiero presents a spoken-word performance of Dylan's lyrics to demonstrate not only that they stand on their own without musical accompaniment, but also make a profound literary statement. Known as "The Sonosopher" or "muse of sound," Caldiero is interested in sound in its own right, and his impulse to take on Dylan should provide very interesting results.

As Dylan said in "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "you don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows," and he's been a kind of cultural barometer since emerging in the New York folk music scene in the early 1960s. Always seen as a poet, he's gone through numerous musical, lyrical and even spiritual transformations in the course of his career. A song like "Masters of War," with its biting indictment of those with the power to wage war, is as relevant now as it was at the height of the Vietnam War. Dylan's songs about relationships like "It Ain't Me, Babe," sometimes detail the painful sides of romance, and his own relationships gave a window into his own attitudes and the changes in society. He is one of those figures whose personality has an immense cultural impact, in addition to his work.

Caldiero wanted to perform Dylan in response to what he calls the "so-called controversy," part of the ongoing conflict between "high" and "low" art. "The response: to present Dylan's work in its literary body," he says. "So I began to calibrate it; that is, make the necessary adjustments by 'unstringing the guitar,' thus de-emphasizing the 'sung' aspects and emphasizing the language of the text by a sonosophic approach. In other words," he continues, "let the words speak-breathe-sound forth the wisdom of their meanings incarnated in the text-body-word-form-being of his living rhythm, manifested simultaneously on the page and atmosphere."

At a performance by Caldiero—whom filmmaker Trent Harris once called "the only Mormon beatnik poet"—you never know exactly what you're going to get. It might include grunts and groans and other sublingual sounds, hoots and hollars, and absurd costumes and gestures.

Caldiero recently obtained the newly published Dylan tome The Lyrics: 1961-2012 and delved into it. "I read it from cover to cover, and kept my ear open for the call from each lyric to say 'choose me,'" he writes in an email. "I mean this literally, by the power of sonosophy (in other words, sonal wisdom)."

Caldiero recited Allen Ginsberg's monumental poem "Howl" for its 60th anniversary at the Salt Lake Public Library in 2015, as he has every five years, and that performance was as much incantation as reading. He compares the figure of Dylan as literary artist to such icons as Ginsberg: "Dylan is in that strain of the American incarnation of various influences and impulses, including surrealism, Rimbaud as avatar of youth rebellion, the oral folk homegrown blues and jazz traditions (as in Harry Smith's American Music collection), rock and beat generation poets. We both have drunk at the same well, at the same source."

Caldiero hints that some of his selections for the event might include "The Times They Are A-changing,'' "The Mighty Quinn," "Visions of Johanna," "Blowin' in the Wind" and some of his stories. Tarantula, a 1971 volume of experimental prose poetry, might also make an appearance.

Prior to the Nobel recognition, Dylan had already been given a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." That didn't incite the same level of controversy as the Nobel, whose description was "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." He was included in the '"Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century," compiled by that publication in 1999 covering the 20th century, citing him as "master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation." His cultural and musical significance isn't in doubt.

While maintaining inestimable artistic integrity and a singular, inimitable voice, the former Robert Allen Zimmerman has undergone an astounding number of changes to become the writer and musician he is today. He's traced, and been a catalyst for, a number of transformations that have occurred in society, and that includes our measure of what makes great literature.

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