Friday, October 28, 2016

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

I was pleased that Bob Dylan received the Nobel prize in literature. I expected that if an American got the prize it would be Philip Roth, among the greatest of our living writers. Don DeLillo was in the running too, and he would have made a worthy recipient. I was surprised that it went to Dylan. A lot of people might not regard what he does as poetry or literature. There are significant reasons why he was an appropriate choice. There's no denying that he has written his share of rotten lyrics. But he's also written some really fine ones, and I wouldn't limit them to the three albums often cited as his best--Bringing It All Back Home (1965)Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). I would add to the list of his best albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), John Wesley Harding (1967--an overlooked great album), Blood on the Tracks (1975), Desire (1976), Oh Mercy (1989), Time out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012).   (Not all those albums are equally good, and not all the songs on those albums are equally good).  There are other songs scattered throughout his work that are more than worthy.  Some of his lyrics may not read like poetry, but some do.  I can't deny that some of his lyrics work better set to music as opposed to being read silently or read aloud, but to me that seems a small matter.

Calling what Dylan does "literature" may require a certain expansion of the definition. And also an expansion of the definition of "poetry."  But not much of an expansion. Maybe no expansion at all.  Where are the standard universally accepted definitions of literature, of poetry?  Given the incredible diversity of poetry and poetic forms abroad today, and widely divergent literary tastes among readers, there is room for Dylan in the mix. The argument that the orality of his songs links back to the oral origins of poetry holds some weight for me--I wouldn't go back to Homer but might mention some of the songs from Shakespeare, William Blake, and others (I read that Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize recipient, wrote some musical lyrics). I'm not equating Dylan with Shakespeare or Blake. I'm suggesting that some of his lyrics work musically in the same way as Shakespeare's. There's a lot of poetry in the American folk music tradition, even in the traditions of Tin Pan Alley. There's also an argument to be made for regarding Dylan's lyrics as a kind of public poetry that has made a tremendous impact on millions of people and that played a role in movements for social change across the world.  The sheer bulk of his work--given these other factors--is worth considering too.

Having made the argument, I wouldn't expect composers of rock or folk music to receive the Nobel Prize very often. I really can't think of anyone else in that category who would merit it in quite the way that Bob Dylan does. 

All of that said, writers like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo are far more deserving of the prize than some of the obscure winners of recent years.

1 comment:

Michael Bishop said...

I agree with all you say here, but would offer Leonard Cohen as another songwriter whose lyrics rival, and sometimes surpass, Dylan's for their effectiveness as poetry. A recent issue of The New Yorker contains an article about Cohen in which Dylan, our latest Nobel Prize laureate for literature, expresses his own admiration for Cohen and for the impressive body of his work as a lyricist and songwriter. Also, along with Roth and DeLillo, I would put forward Ursula K. Le Guin as a deserving American candidate for the same prize that Dylan has just copped.