My first thought on hearing that Bob Dylan had been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was a little sceptical: I love the guy’s lyrics which have made a huge impact on me (just see the many entries on this blog) but does writing songs constitute great literature?

The wrong place to begin is to assert, as the academic Christopher Ricks (who has also written books about T. S. Eliot and John Keats) famously did in the so-called ‘Dylan versus Keats’ controversy, that Dylan’s lyrics not only qualify as poetry, but that Dylan is among the finest poets of all time, on the same level as Milton, Keats, and Tennyson.

Should Dylan be regarded as a poet? The man himself seemed to think not: when asked that question at a press conference when he was at the height of his powers in 1965, he responded, ‘I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.’

The Nobel Prize committee have steered clear of the whole debate by making Dylan the award for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. Speaking to reporters after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said this:

If you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan.

That’s fine, but the award does seem to mark a break with past criteria that have placed the focus on the written word (though you can buy books of Dylan’s printed lyrics, and very many of those from the sixties and early seventies – in other words, up to Blood on the Tracks, stand up very well on the page). But that’ seems to be the way the wind is blowing in criticism. As Arthur Krystal wrote with great coincidental appropriateness in Harper’s only last week:

There’s a new definition of literature in town. It has been slouching toward us for some time now but may have arrived officially in 2009, with the publication of Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America. Alongside essays on Twain, Fitzgerald, Frost, and Henry James, there are pieces about Jackson Pollock, Chuck Berry, the telephone, the Winchester rifle, and Linda Lovelace. Apparently, “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form” — in which case maps, sermons, comic strips, cartoons, speeches, photographs, movies, war memorials, and music all huddle beneath the literary umbrella. Books continue to matter, of course, but not in the way that earlier generations took for granted. In 2004, “the most influential cultural figure now alive,” according to Newsweek, wasn’t a novelist or historian; it was Bob Dylan.

Dylan may have described himself as “a song-and-dance man,” but Marcus and Sollors and such critics as Christopher Ricks beg to differ. Dylan, they contend, is one of the greatest poets this nation has ever produced (in point of fact, he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996).

When it comes down to it, like many previous Nobel Literature prizes, Dylan’s is a lifetime achievement award, rolling together recognition of the enormous influence he has had in the past six decades on both expression and politics. During the first decade of his career he wrote lyrics that spoke to a generation and reflected the tenor of changing times. What was blowing in the wind he captured in great, historic songs. And if there is doubt about whether the best of those lyrics constitute poetry, I refer you to what is perhaps his greatest, ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding):

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Person crying

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

And though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

While some on principles baptised
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticise
Tell nothing except who to idolise
And then say God bless him

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.


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8 thoughts on “Bob Dylan: only a song and dance man?

  1. I’m with you here: not sensibly literature; and arguably, a dumbing-down. Richard Williams, in the Guardian, makes a weak case. But really, there should be a Nobel Prize for being Bob Dylan; or for music; or for popular culture. That said, we should hesitate before picking a fight with Christopher Ricks, the ‘ne plus ultra’ of poetic lit-crit. Still, a nice excuse for raiding the memory locker. Here’s Dylan avant la lettre

    Those masterful images because complete
    Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
    A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
    Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
    Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
    Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
    I must lie down where all the ladders start
    In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

    1. I see you slipped yer man in there. But apposite for sure. I fear the circus animals deserted Dylan long ago. But what jewels that tag and bone shop of the heart revealed long ago, down the foggy ruins of time.

  2. Like you I was skeptical but I was before this Nobel. I truly believe the Nobel is a popularity contest and that the ones who ‘should’ be candidates/winners rarely are. With some exceptions. I mean …. Al Gore? Obama before he killed more via Drone Strikes than previous Presidents? Maybe they have good intentions but I thought Peace Prizes were for actions not intentions … As for Dylan. I like Dylan I think he’s talented, but no I would not have given him a literature prize, there are authors spending their ENTIRE lives writing they are the ones not the popular trendy names who should be considered.

  3. I’m totally in favour of this award.
    If “dumbing down” means honouring a man who revealed the power of words to so many of us, I’ll happily go along with it. As a teenager in the ’60’s, I spent many hours recording his albums onto my reel to reel tape deck so I could listen and pause every line of his lyrics, absorbing their meaning and committing them to paper. Nowadays, those lyrics are readily available in written form and it’s always a real pleasure to me to browse his huge catalogue – not many duffers in there.
    To me, he’s the most important lyricist of the 20th century and I take my hat off to the judges who have been prepared to push the boundaries and ignore the purists.

  4. Dumbing down? OK. I’ll invite nomination next year for my Facebook posts. The Nobel committee can deliver my winning citation via Twitter

  5. The Nobel prize seems to have become part of the entertainment business. Does anyone take it seriously after Kissinger, and Obama? Same as the Oscars. For my part I don’t understand why Philip Roth has never got the gong. But as Lebowski said “That’s just your opinion man”.

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