Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize: Literary Troubadour or Thief?
Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize – it seems even Bob himself felt he was an unlikely choice for the world’s foremost literary award!
Neither the rank outsider nor a bookie’s favourite – some will have done nicely out of his 50/1 odds, though clearly not New Republic – Dylan is a provocative choice and all around the world today people are talking about his work and arguing about his win.
On the day Leonard Cohen punched out the crown on his favourite trilby, Tom Waits put his Dylan vinyl out for recycling and Kanye placed a rush order on a 24 carat gold, diamond encrusted Knobel™ Prize award shrine, I asked current Irish poets and writers what they make of Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
‘You don’t have to write anything down to be a poet. Some work in gas stations. Some shine shoes. I don’t really call myself one because I don’t like the word. Me? I’m a trapeze artist…’ Thus proclaims an Arthur Rimbaud-channelling Ben Whishaw of his wordsmith character in the multi-faceted Todd Haynes Dylan biopic I’m Not There. Bob Dylan is a great poet. Give him the award.
I think he’s a fantastic songwriter and he deserves the Nobel Prize – why not give it to him for songwriting rather than literature though? Leaving out the musical element of what he does devalues the specific skill that is songwriting – creating words and music that act together. I think for me the only issue is a categorisation one rather than a matter of ‘Dylan’s work isn’t good enough to qualify as literature’. I wouldn’t see literature as a more elevated form than songwriting – I value them equally.
Dylan changed the landscape not just of song-writing by putting modernist literature into songs, but has been a major influence on many poets and other writers for decades. His work has been studied in universities around the world and scrutinized as closely as some of the most loved poets such as Blake and Keats. He’s also published much writing including his amazing Chronicles autobiography. Dylan is one of those writers like Shakespeare, Beckett, Joyce, Pinter, Heaney… writers who aren’t just geniuses in their own right, but change the cultural landscape forever more, these writers make such a revolutionary impact they influence young writers today without them necessarily even knowing it, it is for this reason he is well deserving of the Nobel Prize.
The idea that it’s even up for debate baffles me. There is poetry in his music, even in the way he speaks about song writing. I don’t think he needs any of us to stand up for him, he has it sorted. His following speaks, the generations touched by his words speaks. I wonder how many broken hearts have turned to his words, how many first dances traipsed along to his words, how many men were brought to tears? How many young song writers/poets/writers sit today and name him among their influences? Actually, why am I even writing this, go listen to his music, go really listen, and tell me he doesn’t deserve it.
Dylan is an artist who wrote intensely analysable surrealist trips like Ballad of a Thin Man or All Along the Watchtower, bursts of non-complex rage like Masters of War and even pure pop silliness. And all of this was done without any real division between the huge range of musical and artistic traditions Dylan played with. High and low culture all kind of fused into one accessible yet intricate form. Dylan did (and still does) whatever the hell he wanted, be it going electric or doing a Christmas album. Only one of these may have been an actual good decision, but I respect the hell outta the artist who made both of them.
Did I hope that Margaret Atwood, poet, short story writer and novelist, would win the Nobel this year? Yes, but still and all I’m happy about Bob Dylan; for this recognition of how he changed the musical landscape for all of us, how he brought songs of protest into the mainstream, how he influenced young people for many generations to believe a better world is possible, how he celebrated and showcased the work of other artists, how he drew on country, blues, rock for songs that were hard and critical, loving, despairing, honest, searing, memorable, how again and again he made it new and above all for the pleasure he has given and continues to give.
I’ve grown up and aged with Dylan. His early “finger pointing” songs were clear and stood out from much of the simplistic anthems of the times. He situated himself within the great American song writing tradition but drew on elements from popular culture, film, the Bible, literature etc as he needed, to push boundaries. Never content to just repeat himself he continued to experiment, writing great songs which linked back to various traditions, folk, gospel, music hall, blues, rock. The old question, “Is Dylan a poet?” is irrelevant. He is the greatest songwriter of the present age and well deserves the award.
Susan Millar DuMars
To my mind, the award is deserved. His lyrics are part of the canon of the 20th century; he has had an incalculable effect on singer/songwriters and poets that have come after him; and he’s done loads to bring to attention the writings of folk singers, blues musicians and folk poets before him.
The Nobel Prize for Literature, in general, has always been a highly controversial affair, perhaps more so than any of the other Nobel Prizes, as it has always been a highly political event. But, usually, for all of the right reasons. One only has to look back to the list of names and dates of some of the previous winners, and of course read the citations offering a clue as to the motivations for the recipients award. Take Svetlana Alexievich from the Ukraine last year, or Herta Muller from Romania in 2009, Orhan Pamuk from Turkey in 2006 or finally Gao Xingjian of China in 2000, the first Chinese author ever to receive the award. Are we really so naive as to believe that the award is so divorced from history, as to believe so is rather akin to believing that literature itself is at the same remove from events in the so called ‘real’ world?
This year is no different. This is not, of course, to take away for one moment the artistic merits of each recipient. In fact, it is the contrary that is true, and it is for this reason that the Nobel Prize Committee are to be so commended, yet again, in their decision for awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. For it comes at a time when America, perhaps more so than any where, needs to be reminded of the intrinsic values which lie behind such an auspicious award.
I punched the air today when the radio announced said Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize, Bobby, my Bobby FANtastic. Dylan burst into the grey, grey world of the early sixties Ireland. Hot Press hadn’t started yet but the Beatles had come to Dublin and the times were indeed changing. Along came this young, swaggering bard with his haunting harmonica and a voice like sandpaper with wild and wonderful words flying from him that shocked and shouted and delighted all in one go. Who didn’t love Freewheelin’ with its hip picture of Bob and Susi arm in arm on the cover? The answer was blowing in the wind, and dour dull Ireland could go blow with it. I devoured his song lyrics as much as the music, scanned them for layers and meanings. It’s a Hard Rain, Girl of the North Country, Don’t Think Twice. It sure looks like poetry to me.
James Martyn Joyce
I think it’s wonderful that he’s been recognised as a great writer, it broadens it out so much, makes it an Everyman thing. I heard a wonderful Dylan tale from a bookseller who attended an early Dylan gig in New York. It was in a church and he sat near the front and, as the place filled up, was pushed towards the altar rails, then inside the rails until, when Dylan came on, he was sitting at his feet. Dylan passed him a small canvas bag, his hands shaking; it held several harmonicas. As he played his various tunes, he took different harmonicas from the bag – each time he handed it back, his hands were still shaking. I’m for the guy with the trembling hands!
Blood on the Tracks
Is Dylan a more accomplished author than Margaret Atwood or Don DeLillo? Nope, not even close. Has his art had a greater influence on culture, including literature, than (say) Patrick Modiano or Svetlana Alexievich (the last two laureates)? Almost certainly. Should Winston Churchill have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953? No, but then Elvis hadn’t started recording.
For some years the media has blurred the boundaries between art and pop culture. We find poetry in the entertainment section, along with celebrity cookbooks and theses on Kardashian nudity. This probably reflects journalist’s lack of critical engagement with the arts, or a willingness to dilute arts to make them both manageable and saleable. The Nobel Committee evidently is taking the same route, rewarding a singer who is rewarded enough in his own realm of artistry. Not one woman in any category has achieved Nobel recognition in 2016. I am not surprised at Dylan’s award, literature is in the penny place and the Nobel Foundation just underscored that.
‘There’s no doubting Dylan’s greatness as a songwriter and an artist, but I don’t understand how he’s been chosen as a prize winner for literature. If it was a prize for artistic achievement I could accept it, but the category is ‘literature’ and for that reason I don’t think he fits. This is a problem with categories. Of course he’s extremely literate and has written great verse, but I think there are writers out there who have created far greater literature. I’m sure most people could name a handful of living writers who’ve created ground-breaking literature (Nobel’s category, not mine!)’
I just think it’s a bit strange. He has never called himself a writer. Oh sure, he does good lyrics. But so do the Arctic Monkeys, for example. But they’re written to be heard with music. Not read in books or scripts. I expected it to be some old white guy no one has heard of except a few corduroy-ed academics. At least it gets people thinking. But I have more quotes from Shakespeare, Joni and the Beatles in my head than Mr Zimmerman or Keats.
Undoubtedly, Dylan has created “new poetic expressions” with his songs. But he’s already been recognised in the field of songwriting with eleven Grammy awards, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, etc. Dylan doesn’t need another accolade, and arguably, literature doesn’t need Dylan to be toted as the best. Sure, he writes a mean song, has an interesting voice, and has addressed important issues. But that has to be taken as a whole. Without the music and the voice, would the words be as memorable? I dare suspect not. I like him, but he wouldn’t get my vote.
The Ayes have it 2/1, so final thoughts go to writer and editor Ruth McKee, who is currently nominated for the Hennessy Award 2016:
‘Get born. You see a hipster with placards and the rhythmic anger of protest? Me too. Even the president of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked. That works today, like it did in the sixties. Never mind the pentameter — he not busy being born is busy dying — Dylan has reinvented himself over and over. Political persuasion like Homer, but also intimate romance, personal lament. Please see for me if her hair hangs long, that’s the way I remember her best. Quote him like a religious text, quote him like Keats, quote him like those ancient Greeks, a thing of tangled up beauty, and leave your heart at the side of the road. The prize, Alfred Nobel said, should go to someone who has produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.’ Bob Dylan? He’s got nothing more to live up to.’
Make up your own mind with Headstuff’s 10 Bob Dylan Songs That Are Literary Gems.
Or find out how other Irish Writers React in The Irish Times.
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