Bob Dylan looked just a little out of place up on the stage in a Moscow sports hall, seated among a group of international poets behind tubs of potted geraniums and a table set with mineral water.
He was dressed in white from head to foot, with dark glasses and the familiar mop of curly hair. Most of the other 26 poets wore suits and ties, except for the Nicaraguan cultural minister in a safari jacket and beret and an Indian poet in a flowing robe.
And while the other literati recited their poetry, Dylan sang his, after ducking off stage for 10 minutes to tune his guitar. Twangs of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" wafted across the vast airspace of the small sports arena at the Lenin stadium complex, over the heads of a sparse audience seated in aluminum deck chairs lined up on the gym floor.
Dylan received applause, not quite overwhelming but better than polite. More than had been given to, say, the president of the Bulgarian Writers Union, or the Tadzhik poet's recital in Russian of a poem about the battle of Stalingrad, but about as much as was accorded Nika Turbina, a poetical 10-year-old child prodigy.
Clearly, Dylan was something different, something unexpected for the assembled poetry lovers, most of whom seemed not to have had a clue that the famous idol of the 1960s would be in their midst tonight.
"We had no idea," said one young man as he left the hall after Dylan finished his three-song act. "We are going to tell all our friends."
Here, where poetry is taken very seriously and poets regarded as popular figures, there was some debate as to whether Dylan is really a poet. "More a singer-bard," concluded the young man.
Dylan's appearance this week in the Soviet Union -- his first ever -- was low-key to say the least. Even the international poetry reading in which he took part was barely advertised, and as far as anyone knew, Dylan's name never appeared on any billboard or in any newspaper.
One of the organizers said there was concern that people would knock down doors to get in, since by coincidence the poetry reading was scheduled on the eve of the 12th Youth Festival as 20,000 young people arrived in Moscow.
But if Dylan is known in the Soviet Union, it is less among the young generation than among those who remember him from the 1960s. "Those records I have," said the organizer.
Actually, no one seems to remember whether his records were ever officially sold here. Dylan himself said someone at the Soviet embassy in Washington told him he was best known for "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a'Changing."
Shortly after he arrived Wednesday, Dylan said he heard on the radio an instrumental he had once written. "It was the flip side of a single -- 'Wigwam,' I think," he said. "Halfway through I thought 'This sounds familiar,' and then I recognized it as something I wrote. It was spectacular: it sounded like Tchaikovsky."
Dylan today was not clear how long he was staying in Moscow. "I don't really know. I just came in to do this," he said.
The poetry reading was sponsored by the Soviet Writers' Union but according to one of its members, this year was something of a trial run. "You should come next year," he said.
Dylan was asked to come by Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko three months ago, he said. "I told him I don't really read my stuff," Dylan added. "He said it would be nice if I could sing."
Yevtushenko, who introduced Dylan, described him as a "famous . . . singing poet."
Andrei Voznosenski, another Soviet poet who has come to know Dylan on tours of the United States, calls him "a special type of artist." But before the reading, Voznosenski worried that the Dylan magic would go right by the non-English speaking audience. "With him," Voznosenski said, "the sense of the words is very important."