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Bob Dylan: A Prize on His Soul?

N Kalyan Raman

The announcement last Thursday that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 has been awarded to Bob Dylan has caused much heartburn among aficionados of literature as a conventional category. It’s as if some meanie has taken the bat and gone home, abruptly ending their game – if only for another year.

All the polemic arguing that Dylan shouldn’t have got that particular prize has only stressed the ‘loss’ to literature by this one-off event, all the benefits foregone and the fall in standards induced by this violation of category. Sure, the critics have heaped much fandom and admiration on the genius of Bob Dylan – for, how could they not? – but very few have bothered to look at this outsider and his art in their own terms. Very specifically, most of the naysayers betray merely a superficial familiarity with his body of work and even more important, his trajectory as an artist.

Poet or Songster?

Anyone who has listened closely to Dylan would readily agree that he is a poet. True, he started with protest songs and his own updated versions of traditional folk & blues, but by the time Highway 61 Revisited was released in 1965, when he was all of 24, he had evolved into a poet. There has been no looking back since. The ever-changing content (or thematic concerns) of his songs through his career can be described as his creative responses to life in and around him. Through his continuous exploration not only of love and death, but also of the political and spiritual, he has illuminated the human condition as much as any conventional poet might have done. This has remained true right from the driving rage of Like A Rolling Stone (1965) to the wry anguish of Roll on, John (2012), his sorrowful tribute to the memory of John Lennon.

At the same time, Dylan has chosen to describe himself as a song-and-dance man, rather than a poet: as one who locates himself firmly in the American song tradition and speaks/sings directly to the people. Dylan has always practiced his art with high seriousness, uncorrupted by the framework of entertainment which provided the context for his cultural production. He has brought the gravitas and dazzling craft of contemporary poetry into that tradition and made it endure. By any standards, this is a stupendous achievement. In his later work, where he explored America’s social history going back a hundred years and more, he was able to find kinship and solidarity with folk artists of a bygone era who were also, like Dylan, engaged in creative responses to life in their time.

But he was a songwriter, not a poet, goes the refrain. If we go back far enough, all poetry in all cultures preserved itself only as song (and dance). When the textual tradition of literature gained ascendancy, the folk tradition was branded as inferior and banished to the margins of society. What Dylan has done with his songs is to dismantle this barrier and bring poetry into a new space where it can speak directly to the listeners without reference to the authority of a privileged establishment. It is this radical act that the Swedish Academy has chosen to celebrate and reward. What is wrong with that? The world of contemporary rock and roll is teeming with songwriters and musicians who are devoted to the cause of mass entertainment. The high-minded ‘literary’ person fixated on Proust and Joyce, and self-consciously proud of it, may well fail to see that Dylan stands apart from these latter-day emperors of Tin Pan Alley. Only a special kind of ignorance can lead to such a failure.

A Question of Form

But all of Dylan’s poetry is tied to music, so why is it literature? It hardly needs saying that art forms evolve continuously with changing social and material conditions. Poetry itself has been changing in both format and expression over the past few decades. Today it includes spoken word and slam. So, the question of whether Dylan's songs are poetry is the same as whether a videowall is a painting or whether an installation is a sculpture. To the art establishment the latter questions are no longer relevant. Even narrative prose fiction is making way for graphic novels and hyperlinked or digital storytelling. Are we to reflexively reject all these newer forms as inferior, pretentious or worse? I hope not. A literary world that once embraced Finnegan’s Wake, The Wasteland, Naked Lunch and Sunflower Sutra as its own shouldn't even be debating the merits of Dylan’s artistic choice. It should merely note that Dylan has been a special kind of song-and-dance man for decades before the establishment got up the nerve to acknowledge his stature.

A Dream No More

Even amid such self-righteous detraction, it is gratifying that a few highly regarded literary outsiders have warmly endorsed the Nobel Committee’s choice.

Salman Rushdie:

Stephen King:

But the best response to the naysayers might have been articulated by Dylan himself in the third and final verse of Dear Landlord from John Wesley Harding (1968):

Dear landlord

Please don’t dismiss my case

I’m not about to argue

I’m not about to move to no other place

Now, each of has his own special gift

And you know this was meant to be true

And if you don’t underestimate me

I won’t underestimate you.

What prescience! I would completely endorse what the writer Christopher Ricks has said: ““I just think we’re terrifically lucky to be alive at a time when he is.”

Published in Huffington Post on Oct 17, 2016


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