I’m a poet and I know it. The Nobel Prize and Bob Dylan’s Literary Credentials

For those who deal with literature more often than once in a blue moon, Nobel Prizes in Literature are not very exciting. They do not define the directions of literature’s development, and certainly do not identify what is most interesting in the writing of today.

In consequence, non-casual readers of literature usually remain indifferent to them, just as true cinema lovers do not care for the Oscars. Literary life goes along an entirely different track, the best proof of that being the list of great writers who did not receive the prize, from Proust and Joyce through Nabokov and Borges to John Ashbery. The Nobel Prizes in Literature may increase the popularity of awarded writers and boost the sales of their works (although this effect is often astonishingly short-lived, expiring in less than a year); sometimes the prize enhances the status of lesser-known cultural areas remaining outside the circle of the so-called great languages; furthermore, in most cases the direct motivation for choosing the winner is non-literary, i.e. political. The Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan from last year changed something in this respect, although, let us make it clear, Dylan did not need the prize. I do not think that the sales of his records increased. Dylan is an actor in a theatre in which popularity is much greater than the popularity of even the trendiest Nobel Prize winner. For the first time has the committee awarded an artist whose work sells not in hundreds of thousands nor even in millions but in tens of millions of copies and whose image is as familiar as that of the greatest film stars. What is more, Dylan has for long had an assured place in the history of contemporary culture of the last half-century: any survey of this culture (the 1960s counterculture especially) that would not include the contribution of Dylan would be simply unreliable.

New Chapter in History of Nobel Prizes

It was not Dylan who needed the Nobel Prize—it was the Nobel Prize which needed Dylan. Last year’s decision opened a new chapter in the history of these prizes, so it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the importance of this event could be compared to the moment when the male colleges of the University of Oxford opened their doors to women in 1974. The Nobel Committee awarded a rock star, for the first time in its history taking a sufficiently broad definition of literature to contain the poetry of rock, or more generally, literature which coexists with music. Thus it noticed this branch of literary creativity which in the present times is perhaps most dynamic and expansive: pop and rock lyrics (besides advertising slogans, graffiti, and the language of blogs) constitute, whether we want it or not, our natural poetic surroundings, and so to a growing extent they shape our literary taste and expectations. Years ago, pop artists decided that they could not ignore the aesthetics of everyday life: posters, billboards, industrial design, the typography of color magazines, record covers, etc., for it is them that shape our aesthetic sensibility and function as the fundamental point of reference in our iconic space. One can speak of an interesting imbalance: art opened itself to the iconosphere of the everyday and the popular, while literature still looks at the poetry of rock and pop songs from above and gives it a wide berth.

Not surprisingly, the Nobel for Dylan provoked a number of critical comments. Objections to last year’s verdict could be divided into two groups. First, there are those who deny Dylan’s work the status of literature and Dylan himself the status of a poet. They may appreciate his achievement in the history of rock music, but they situate it completely outside the sphere of literature. Second, what arouses opposition is not that the committee went beyond the borders of literature, but that it reached for pop culture, i.e. for something trivial, worthless, and banal. It was not a risky transgression but a degradation of the prize. Sometimes both these charges—that it is music rather than literature and popular culture rather than high culture—appear jointly. “What an absurdity! A musician got the literary Nobel Prize,” wrote one of the best-known right-wing websites in Poland, although critical remarks towards the verdict are not limited to the right: they are launched from both sides of the political divide. The eminent Polish prose writer Paweł Huelle was not hiding his indignation: “Awarding the literary Nobel Prize to Dylan is something astonishing and pathetic. Dylan as a writer has not distinguished himself in any way.” It is worth examining these charges and refuting them both.

Let us start with the fundamental truth which is too often forgotten: awarding the literary prize to the author of works designed to be sung, the Nobel Committee perhaps made a historic breach in its previous practice, but it did not make any re-evaluation of literature. It is not a subversive verdict, on the contrary: it goes back to the sources of poetry, for poetry started from song. Awarding a poet-singer such as Dylan is not a revolutionary gesture but a reminder of those forms of literature which have existed since its very beginnings. If in the context of the Nobel Prize for Dylan, Homer’s name was mentioned, it was not because someone wanted to equate these two authors, but because they both made poetry for the voice rather than for the letter.

The tradition of oral poetry flourished with medieval poets active all around Europe: Provençal troubadours, German minnesingers, Scandinavian skalds, Anglo-Saxon scopes, or Celtic bards, showing affinity to what Dylan has been doing. But there is another medieval tradition of which Dylan is an heir–ballads. As the etymology of the name indicates, they were created as songs to be danced to and before they were written down, they lived in a variable oral form. Passed on from generation to generation, they entertained and moved the listeners, they caused a shudder of horror while commenting upon the world and opening the doors to the land of fantasy. They often played the function of broadsheets, telling current sensational stories as if taken from criminal chronicles, speaking about what happened at the court of a local landlord, who murdered whom, who fell in love with whom, and who travelled to where. These ballads, as we know, went through numerous transformations: in the version created by the Romantics they came close to lyrical poetry. Their urban variety soon evolved.

Dylan grew up on these ballads, many of which had been created on the English-Scottish border or in Ireland and arrived in America with the early settlers. America cultivated this heritage and hence ballads are still a living form of art. To no small extent we owe it to Francis James Child, who collected almost 300 such ballads and published them in a monumental three volume edition. Were it not for this legacy, we probably would not have had Dylan’s famous ballads such as Ballad of Hollis Brown, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Ballad in Plain D, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. This tradition, which Dylan took over and enriched, is supplemented in his work with the tradition of blues, an endemic American genre reflecting the history of black America, although not far removed from the ballad, connecting poetry with music.

Pop Artists Wander Around With Their Ballads

If today there are continuators of the tradition of the ballad, then we can find them among rock and pop artists. They not only write and perform often sophisticated lyrics, but like their medieval predecessors they wander around with these songs in long concert tours. Dylan’s predecessors in the art of oral poetry can also be found in the 20th century—among American beatniks, whose poems, such as the famous Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Dylan’s friend and collaborator, were rather recited in the form of singsong than read out, often with musical accompaniment, closer to the poetics of jazz and jazz improvisation than printed poetry.

Literature which closely coexists with music and with the voice of the performer is fully legitimate and the Nobel Committee did not make any breach here. On hearing the charge that this kind of poetry exists only when it is performed, that it only works when it is combined with music and therefore it is worthless as a text, we can respond with a question: is Hamlet or Waiting for Godot completely fulfilled on the pages of the book? Does a play not need stage fulfilment to be realized in full? No one questions the literary value of even the most theatrical plays by Beckett (a Nobel Prize winner after all), where the rhythm of speech, the use of silence and light, stage movement (or lack of it), stage design, and so on play a pivotal role, sometimes more important than the word. It is similar with Dylan’s texts, which being literature, find fulfilment only in their musical and stage implementation. It is in combination with music that the peculiar poetry of his work is revealed: many of Dylan’s poetic devices and formal resources used in his songs find justification only when we hear Dylan sing these songs. This does not deprive them of their literary value.

A poem has its graphic shape, important when we read it: for example, the arrangement of verses in the sonnet creates the familiar visual composition on a page that cannot be communicated by voice. Using small letters in a poem is also a device which works only in the graphic mode—it disappears when we are only listening to such a poem. We regard poetry with an important graphic component as obvious and legitimate; but when the vocal or musical component becomes important in the text, we tend to regard it as a proof that such a text is incomplete or deficient. The qualities of such Dylan’s songs as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (which by the way is a variation on the 17th-century English ballad Lord Randall) will only be activated when the song is sung, when the repetition of the eponymous verse is accompanied by a crescendo building an effect of growing, inescapable horror. Such a crescendo is a quality which you cannot write down, it goes beyond language, but it remains an important element of the work, justifying its repetitiveness. Meanwhile, on hearing about the planned edition of Polish translation of Dylan’s texts one of the critics, Marcin Sendecki, wrote: “Dylan in the form of a bare, printed text will be naked as Andersen’s emperor.” Would the critics say the same about Beckett, the author of miniature plays such as Breath?

What Makes Literature Literary?

Another kind of problem appears in the discussions on the issue if Dylan’s work is sufficiently literary to aspire to the literary Nobel Prize. The question can be formulated differently: is Dylan a poet or (merely) an author of lyrics. It is worth noting that when we formulate it like that, the “poet” is not a neutral term for a certain profession, an activity you can do better or worse, but it becomes an evaluative and ennobling term. Under such an understanding of the term, a poet is not a person who works with words paying attention to how they connect with each other, but someone gifted, anointed, exceptional. In his Nobel Prize speech Dylan seems to express indifference to the question if his work qualifies as literature: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself ‘Are my songs literature?’” Significantly, Dylan does not question the literary nature of his work, only says that he had no time for such reflections. We can, however, ask what is it that makes literature literary and then we can try finding these qualities in Dylan’s texts. It is often claimed that a text is literary if it invokes tradition. Dylan as few other rock lyricists draws on the literary past, finding inspiration in the Bible, medieval ballads, Shakespeare’s plays, the poetry of French symbolists, the poems of Eliot, the prose and poetry of the Beat Generation.

Literariness of a given work can also be measured by its influence on contemporary language. Dylan meets this criterion with a vengeance, for many phrases from his songs entered the English language, becoming popular sayings and catchphrases. Quoted in various versions, often by people who do not know who their author is, these phrases enrich contemporary English. Examples: “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.” (Subterranean Homesick Blues) “Something is happening but you don’t know what it is.” (Ballad of a Thin Man) ”To be outside the law you must be honest.” (Absolutely Sweet Marie).

And, finally, we come to the third criterion of literariness, that is,
influence on later artists. Dylan not only transformed the way rock and pop lyrics were written. Until his time these texts could irritate with their
infantilism and formulaic nature. Dylan showed that you could write songs which could match the most sophisticated literary texts with their degree of formal and semantic complication, opening the way for later poets of rock, such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, or Nick Cave. It was as a consequence of meeting Dylan that the Beatles went away from simple texts of the “boy meets girl” type and started to write more ambiguous lyrics, playful, anecdotal, surrealistic, introducing puns and literary allusions. As Bruce Springsteen said in his speech welcoming Dylan to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Presley liberated our bodies, Dylan liberated our minds. However, Dylan influenced not only the poets of rock. Inspired by him were also such poets as the Irishman Paul Muldoon or the British Mark Ford, both of whom contributed to an anthology with a meaningful title: Bob Dylan with Poets and Professors.

In Opposition to Anything That Could Limit His Artistic Sovereignty

Dylan is a literary continent. He started offering us his witty, insightful commentaries on our reality in the early 1960s and has been doing that for over half a century, still seeking new forms of artistic expression. Successive generations recognized themselves in his songs, not only Americans; they found in his lyrics their own language with which they could speak about this world and credibly describe it. It does not matter if it was a language of almost journalistic stories reporting on racial and social conflicts in America; or visions of approaching destruction sprinkled with biblical phrases; or a psychedelic whirlwind of images and phrases drawn from drug experiences; or love songs covering the whole range of emotions from desire through anger, sadness, and malice to eroticized fantasy; or an evangelizing language which adorned the poetics of American gospel songs; or the poetry of raw blues, undercut with melancholy and resignation; or perhaps cinematic narratives blurring the line between what we view on the screen and what we see in our dreams; or long, epic poems with a gallery of memorable figures: outcasts, vagabonds, junkies, circus performers, thieves. It is a richness for which it is difficult to find a common denominator besides the unchanging nonconformity of the artist.

It has often been said that Dylan would perfect a certain genre only to abandon it after a while and make a radical U-turn, completely hanging his style, as if constant metamorphosis was the raison d’être of his work. Or to put it differently: he was in an unceasing opposition to anything that could limit his artistic sovereignty, submit him to some external power, close him in some tested formula. Dylan changed his language, he also changed himself, starting with the founding act of the abandonment of his identity and the transformation of Robert Zimmerman into Bob Dylan. Later, every few years, he would undergo another metamorphosis: from a civil rights movement activist marching alongside Martin Luther King on Washington he changes into a rock existentialist hiding behind black sunglasses, then puts on a cowboy hat, goes to Nashville and becomes a pal of Johnny Cash, and a few years later assumes a new identity and a new name, Rinaldo, and trades the cowboy hat for a straw hat with colored flowers under a bow; but not for long, because Dylan soon becomes baptized and starts to preach about Jesus, only to return to the Jewish tradition, which does not prevent him from singing before the Pope, and then to change into a bluesman and almost at the same time record an album with Christmas carols and two records with Frank Sinatra songs. In Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garret and Billy the Kid Dylan plays the role of a stranger who came from nowhere and bears the telling name Alias. In the song With God on Our Side, before he sketches the history of America as a series of expansive wars and acts of genocide perpetrated in the name of God, he will say about himself: „My name it is nothing, my age it means less.” During the Rolling Thunder Review tour he paints his face white. There is a famous story when one day he entered the stage without make-up and said: “Today I am wearing Bob Dylan’s mask.” It was not without reason that the producers of the biographical film about Dylan I’m Not There employed as many as six actors to play his role, including one woman, perhaps believing that only in this way they would be able to show the truth about Dylan’s identity metamorphoses.

Dylan is a constant self-creation, a figure of many names, faces, and biographies, with a rare gift for absorbing, assimilating, and transforming almost anything he encounters on his way. Like Shakespeare, Dylan came to us from a rustic province, a brilliant self-taught man whose reading list was a non-canonical patchwork from world classics to pulp fiction; greedy and avid towards the world, he created a multidimensional work, its popularity matching its sophistication, its craftsmanship going hand-in-hand with fantasy, its entertaining potential with an invitation to think, and seriousness of its intent with the joy of the word.

Jerzy Jarniewicz

Jerzy Jarniewicz is a Polish poet, translator, and literary critic, who lectures in English at the University of Lodz. He has published ten volumes of poetry, thirteen critical books on contemporary Irish, British, and American literature, and has written extensively for various journals. He is editor of the literary monthly Literatura na Swiecie (Warsaw) and has translated the work of many novelists and poets, including James Joyce.

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