Laudatory op-eds and articles began appearing online and in print shortly after the Nobel Prize announcements on 13 October 2016. Bob Dylan had won the literature prize. On that very same day, New York Times music journalist Jon Pareles began his op-ed reflection on the award with the question, “What took them so long?” But the news wasn’t without detractors. Several friends and colleagues of mine, for example, expressed everything from puzzlement to dismay. One friend sent me a text shortly after the announcement critiquing the news as the lousiest choice since the prize was awarded to Winston Churchill in 1953. Dylan was a talented pastiche artist. This friend believed that pop stars like Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed were more deserving on the poetic level. Another friend, the smartest Shakespearean I’ve ever known, saw it as a literary debasement. It was emblematic of the gradual death of the literary text. He’d even spent some time after the announcement printing out lyrics from Dylan’s classic period in the mid-sixties, hoping to find literary merit in the verses at the level of a Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman, or Shakespeare. But the lyrics seemed thin to him without the music and Dylan’s idiosyncratic vocal inflections to lift it all into life.
From my perspective, the Nobel Prize Committee was perceptive when it recognized Dylan’s importance as a sampler and promulgator of tradition, and as the innovator of a great and original American songbook. Over the years, his musical identities have channeled the personae of a dustbowl Okie, a Beat poet, a Nashville songwriter, a Born Again holy roller, and a delta bluesman. Lyrics and melodies from the ’50s, ’40s, ’30s, and much earlier, flow through his albums like a Biblical deluge. And there are so many literary forms embedded in his lyrics: ballads, talking blues, jeremiads, sermons, elegies, dramatic monologues, and surrealist language experiments. Not to mention the fact that Dylan routinely appropriates themes and quotations from artists as varied as Henry Timrod, Muddy Waters, John Keats, and T.S. Eliot, keeping these writers circulating within public consciousness.
But it’s not just this. It’s what Dylan does with tradition that’s truly remarkable. Modernist poet Ezra Pound’s magnum opus, The Cantos, share characteristics with Dylan’s body of work insofar as both artists draw on a polyphonic range of cultural traditions, vernaculars, and literary forms. Pound imagined that the disparate pieces of his creation were similar to iron filings on a mirror. Each filing is separated from the others, but they are drawn into a rose pattern by the presence of a magnet. Bob Dylan’s songs – sung in different voices, in different moods, on different life occasions, and chipped off different cultural blocks – possess a unifying coherence. Although I’m hesitant to explain what it is, I’m certain that it is. T.S. Eliot, who’s “fighting in the captain’s tower” with Ezra Pound in Dylan’s famous song “Desolation Row,” wrote in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” that a poet needed to embody the whole of literature, from its classical sources to its contemporary ones. He believed that “the most individual parts of his [the poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”
Beyond the quality of his work, Bob Dylan is perhaps second only to William Shakespeare in the effect he has had on English as a spoken language. Toward the end of his life, the poet Allen Ginsberg praised his younger friend’s intuitive understanding of orality. The great Bardic tradition of Western culture is populated by artists who lifted their voices to song, from Homer to Sappho to the wandering minstrels of the middle ages. In the mid-Twentieth Century, Beat poets, like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso, tried to free poetry from the desiccating clutches of academia by reading, and at times singing, their verses to live audiences of mixed age, race, socioeconomic standing, and gender. After fifty years of doing similar, at times brilliantly and at times imperfectly, Dylan’s poetry has infiltrated the popular lexicon, appearing in everything from political speeches, to legal briefs, to everyday slang. And whether or not his lyrics seem thin on the page, they run through deeply through the complicated and violent culture that inspired a young Robert Zimmerman to pick up his guitar and sing.
Featured image credit: “Bob Dylan and The Band” by Jim Summaria. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.