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Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

— October 23, 2016

Don’t get up, gentlemen,

I’m only passing through.

”Times Have Changed”

The news that Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature brings with it, appropriately enough, a conundrum: Does Dylan deserve the Nobel, and does the Nobel deserve Dylan? The answer is that, like a pair of lovers from one of his songs, they deserve each other.

Unlike the usual Monday-morning awarding, the debate over Dylan draws its scrimmage line upon the definition of literature itself. Since the debate involves the Nobel Prize, we may as well attend to the guidelines provided by the Nobel Foundation itself, which seems to open up space for Dylan with its definition of literature as “not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value.” What makes for “literary value” we’re left to divine for ourselves, but in his will Alfred Nobel himself provided his intention for the award. The inventor of dynamite wanted the prize in literature to go to the person who had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Since the first award was granted in 1901, the Swedish Academy has worked within that rather vague mandate, granting 109 awards to 113 recipients, some of whom have remained major literary figures, others whose stars have dimmed, and still others who were perhaps questionable choices even at the time. American winners of the prize have included novelists William Faulkner, Pearl S. Buck, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison while Eugene O’Neill won for his dramatic writing. If we consider song lyrics to be poetry, Dylan would be the first American poet to win the prize.

But are song lyrics to be considered poetry? Songs, certainly of the traditional forms in which Dylan has always worked, present the lyricist with certain constraints of structure, rhythm and rhyme that modern poetry freed itself from with the work of that other hard travelin’ American, Walt Whitman. Still, modern poets often work with great success within traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet. Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney comes to mind. The difficulty for Dylan as a consideration for the prize would seem to be less the formal chains of the song genre than the loss of the richness that genre supplies. Songs are music. Dylan’s lyrics must stand naked before the reader, without guitar or singing voice, if they are to be considered poetry in the most strict sense. Here is the most likely battlefield in the debate over Dylan’s worthiness. Bob Dylan’s evocative and allusive imagery, especially in his work of the Sixties, and muscular, tumbling verses achieve time and again poetic excellence, says one side. Bosh, says the other. More often than not his imagery slips from the incisive to the obscure and finally appears only whimsical as it fills out a line and reaches for a rhyme. This is a fun debate to have (or a deadly serious one, depending on your attitude toward the Nobel Prize), but it is one abstemious in its lack of music. It seems, though, that the Academy had their headphones on when deciding to give him the prize.

The 2016 prize was awarded to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That’s an ambiguous statement. Are Dylan’s poetic expressions brand new ones, or are they only new to the great American song tradition? If the latter is the Academy’s intent, then Dylan would certainly meet the criterion. No other American songwriter could have written both “Desolation Row” and “Chimes of Freedom.” If the former, if Dylan is being given the prize for having changed poetry itself, we’re back to our old debate but with a backing track. But stepping away from the task of close reading, of holding Blood on the Tracks up to other contemporary poetry, we finally have to ask, why Dylan?

Writing in the World Socialist Web Site, critic David Walsh finds a political dimension to the 2016 choice: “The Academy seems to be making an attempt to widen its definition of literature and perhaps prove its ‘relevancy’ in the 21st century. Beyond that, one has the sense that, in the midst of US-European tensions that can only worsen and an unprecedented, tumultuous American election campaign, this is a signal from sections of the European upper middle class and bourgeoisie to their affluent counterparts in the US—the Obama constituency—so to speak, offering support and the ‘hand of friendship.’”

In addition to this, perhaps labored, explanation, Walsh and others find in the selection of Dylan a case of generational sentimentality. Walsh points out that the prize is awarded “by affluent 60- and 70-year-olds who, like Dylan himself, have been thoroughly integrated into the establishment and have not had anything politically interesting or serious, let alone genuinely rebellious, to say for decades.” Such a criticism of the Academy in its selection of Dylan casts aspersion on more than just the 2016 prize, of course, but it’s an implied slight Walsh does not follow up on. Still, the criticism of Dylan is on the money. Dylan has released a good deal of well written and well produced music over the last twenty-five years, but few would argue he has broken new ground poetically or stepped on many toes politically. His best work is well behind him, and he has indeed settled comfortably into the bosom of the establishment. One need only recall the sight of the grizzled troubadour sitting next to President Bill Clinton at the 1997 Kennedy Honors spectacle to give up hope of seeing a vibrant, angry album attacking neoliberalism.

In the 1960’s, a young man who called himself Bob Dylan, after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, exploded with songs that themselves exploded in lines afire with images such as the music listener had never been invited to fathom. In 2016, the Swedish Academy has honored that explosion of songs with the Nobel Prize. For whatever other reasons, personal or political, the Academy has made this choice, as well as the choice to expand the literature prize to include song lyrics, such an expansion would indeed have to begin with Dylan. The pity is we no longer have the young Dylan to write a song about it.

Sources: “The Nobel Prize in Literature” “Does Bob Dylan Deserve to Receive the Nobel Prize for Literature?”

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