Bob Dylan speaks onstage at the 25th anniversary MusiCares 2015 Person Of The Year Gala at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Feb. 6, 2015 in Los Angeles.
If rock ‘n’ roll has produced anything resembling a poet laureate, it is surely Bob Dylan (with Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits shuffling close behind). But is what Dylan does actually poetry? Stripped of the melodies, the froggy, often unintelligible singing, the strumming, does it stand on its own scuffed-boot feet as literature on the order of Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda and T.S. Eliot?
The Nobel committee obviously thought so, as on Thursday (Oct. 13), they announced that Robert Zimmerman has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The 75-year-old Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar winner, who has a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honor, National Medal of the Arts, Pulitzer Prize and a place in both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll halls of fame is surely one of the country’s, if not the world’s, most revered songwriters. But a Nobel laureate? Amid the accolades, congratulations and attaboys that came flooding in after the Nobel nod was announced came a chorus asking that nagging question.
“This award is not usually about influence and impact [because] a lot of times it goes to some obscure Scandinavian novelist that not many people have heard of,” Alan Light, music journalist and a host on soon-to-launch SiriusXM music talk channel Volume, told Billboard about the unexpected accolade for Dylan. “You at least get the sense that the idea of honoring Dylan was about expanding the notion of literary writing and introducing the idea of this kind of writing to a whole other universe.”
Bob Dylan on Feb. 6, 2015 in Los Angeles.
Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize in Literature
On the one hand, Light said, there’s no question that Dylan has had a transformational impact on the world through his music, which has tackled love, war, hate, greed, injustice, intolerance and everything in between over the past five-plus decades. The question, however, is: “Do songwriting and literature belong in the same category?”
Slate’s Stephen Metcalf answered with an emphatic “no.” In an essay titled “Bob Dylan Is a Genius of Almost Unparalleled Influence, But He Shouldn’t Have Gotten the Nobel,” the site’s at-large critic passionately argued that Dylan has shifted the axis of pop culture, and in a way that is almost hard to imagine. But by placing a verse from Dylan’s “Up to Me” (from Biograph) beside a few stanzas from Metcalf’s favorite American poet, Richard Wilbur (“The heavens jumped away/ Bursting the cincture of the zodiac/ Shot flares with nothing left to say/ To us, not coming back”), the critic wrote, “Language must express itself as both thought and music, because, you know, there is no music to propel it otherwise.”
Wilbur, he said, spent a lifetime “refining an ancient practice, of making a hard, seemingly intractable thought dance to the rhythm of his chosen words — and in doing so, in working through the difficult thought, for a moment, the cosmos is placed at our fingertips.” And while the verses are from his favorite Dylan song, he says they feel “colloquial, spare, painterly, and without the accompanying music, inert.” The first he said, is poetry, the latter, lyrics.”
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The opposite argument could be found in a tweet from one of the most acclaimed novelists of our time, Booker, Golden Pen, Whitbread and Pen Pinter Award winner Salman Rushdie. “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”
Some of the haterade might be tied to the notion that such deserving novelists as Don DeLillo and Phillip Roth may have missed their last, best chance for the honor in place of a… folk singer. “There’s always been this debate about whether song lyrics are poetry if you take away the music,” said Light. “The issue is, ‘has he transformed the place of literary writing in the world?’ And there’s no question. The impact he has had on several generations and how they think about writing and the possibilities of writing is enormous. But I don’t think that’s what the Nobel prize is usually honoring.”
The question of why Dylan was picked might never be answered. As Jay Nordlinger, author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote to Billboard in an email, “There are known, codified criteria — laid out in Nobel’s will. At the same time, there is subjectivity. Some committee members regard the will as a ‘living document.’ Others are more ‘strict constructionists.’ Nobel wanted his literature prize to go to writers who, in their work, try to uplift mankind. Prizewinners are supposed to be writers with an idealistic bent.”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform onstage during Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Field on Oct. 7, 2016 in Indio, Calif.
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Given that description, Dylan’s choice seems like much less of a puzzle. Think of how often the lyrics to “Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” ” The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” among so many others, are quoted by artists, politicians and revolutionaries. Dylan’s lyrics depend on the rhythms and melodies that surround them, but if ever there was a rock and roll poet whose words could stand on their own as a statement of principle, of heartbreak, of defiance, defeat and triumph, it’s Dylan.
“What he does is different than written poetry,” Light said. “I do wonder if it’s a branding exercise for the Nobel to be a bit hipper and reach out beyond these obscure novelists… [but] there’s a Dylan line for every occasion and it’s not a songwriting award. His intent wasn’t to have his lyrics read out of context; he’s still writing melodies. There’s a reason he’s doing them as songs and not sitting and writing as poems. But they also work outside of that context and are cited all the time. They work when you strip away all the rest of that.”