As you may have heard, earlier this year the American singer-songwriter and poet, Bob Dylan, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ The secretary of the Swedish academy compared his work to that of Homer and Sappho and expressed hope that the news would be received with joy.
And as expected, Dylan’s Nobel win was greeted with a variety of responses, many were delighted by what they regarded as a long overdue recognition of talent, including President Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen and me, whilst others took a more disapproving stance, claiming that Dylan was fundamentally a musician, not a poet and therefore did not deserve such an accolade.
With that in mind, let us examine the argument put forward by those critics: that Bob Dylan’s songs cannot be considered literature.
Okay, now let’s remind ourselves that some of the earliest forms of poetry were lyric poetry and consider that argument again. In Dylan’s work, words and music are undoubtedly intertwined. It’s poetry written to be performed, to be enhanced by and delivered through music.
Songs such as Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Hard Rain’ draw influence from the spontaneous style of Kerouac and the symbolism of Rimbaud. They display, as Patti Smith puts it, a ‘Rimbaudian mastery of language with a deep understanding of the causes of suffering and ultimately human resilience.’
Hard Rain itself was partly influenced by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and another Dylan song: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is widely recognised as the anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement. This goes to show that Dylan’s work is not only poetically accomplished, but also politically nuanced and historically significant. Dylan’s songs have been the soundtrack of the last century and continue to provide truth and influence a new generation of poets.
Bob Dylan has never been a songwriter in the classical sense and is by no means a traditional poet, so it only seems fitting for some to find his brand of literature hard to define and label, but since when has ground breaking art been conventional? There is no doubt that Dylan’s work bears the defining traits of great literature, for over half a century, he has produced lyrical and narrative masterpieces that have defied expectations and set new precedents.
So if Dylan’s Nobel win is hard for some to swallow, then perhaps it’s time for them to realise that the times are a-changing, time to realise that literature is dynamic and boundless and acknowledge Bob Dylan as a rare and exceptional writer.