Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize is thoroughly deserved

But not because he writes poetry

October 14, 2016
©Alberto Cabello, Vitoria Gasteiz
©Alberto Cabello, Vitoria Gasteiz

“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 celebrated during his life. And he will mark the award by carrying on with what he loves doing—playing live.

But this is another problem for treating his songs as poetry—they are found and refound in the process of performance. It is no coincidence that key moments in his career—the Newport Folk Festival, the Free Trade Hall gig, even the flawed film Renaldo and Clara—are live. And live music is special. In 1973, Don DeLillo published a novel called Great Jones Street, it was about a Dylan-like figure called Bucky Wunderlick who disappears—missing, presumed dead. At one point, Bucky says this:

“Music is the final hypnotic. Music puts me just so out of everything. I get taken beyond every reference that indicates who I am or how I behave. Just so out of it. Music is dangerous in so many ways. It’s the most dangerous thing in the world.”

It is a tribute to the Swedish Academy that they have stretched the definition of literature to encompass Dylan. They said that Dylan took the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

I think American writer Greil Marcus put it better when talking about Dylan in the Scorsese documentary No Direction Home: “all through this film Bob Dylan talks about his goals, or his sense of himself, as if he knew that he was destined to do things that other people weren’t able to do. To become a kind of magnet for the needs and desires, and psychoses, of all different kinds of people.

“He understood this. He saw this. He realised this was something that he couldn’t evade."

The award is richly deserved recognition for a man whose restless reinvention has inspired, stimulated, infuriated but never bored. And who has never stopped.