“Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow Do you understand my pain ? Are you willing to risk it all Or is your love in vain?”
Not a great piece of writing, is it? Banal thoughts, the simplest of rhyme schemes. It’s not exactly poetry. But it is part of the body of work that has earned Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of course, what I have done is unfair. If you recognised the words as coming from Bob Dylan’s song “Is Your Love In Vain” from the album “Street-Legal” then you won’t simply have read the words, you will have heard the music and Dylan’s voice. That’s the thing: Dylan writes songs and the words are lyrics—not poetry.
And it doesn’t matter that Sara Danius, Professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University and Permanent Secretary to the Swedish Academy (which awards the prize), argues that Dylan albums should be read like collections of poetry. The flaw in her reasoning is quickly identified: it is not simply that you can’t actually read an album, whether it is vinyl or CD; it’s also the quotations she cites from “Stuck inside of Mobile”: “Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley/With his pointed shoes and his bells” and from the last lines of “Just Like A Woman”: “And she aches just like a woman/But she breaks, just like a little girl.” Neither a reference to Shakespeare nor nasty misogyny make a poet of you.
This is not to mean that I line up with Irvine Welsh, whose response to the award was splenetic:
“I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies. If you’re a ‘music’ fan, look it up in the dictionary. Then ‘literature’. Then compare and contrast.”
He has a point, he usually does. This is a generational award – a babyboomers’ Nobel Prize. There is a sense in which this is actually the final tribute to David Bowie. The waves of grief after his death and the consideration of the scale of his contribution to modern culture undoubtedly reminded us of both the importance of pop music and the genuine greatness of its most towering figures. While Bowie was feted after his death, Dylan has been…