I was as surprised as anybody when I heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature today. Not that I think he is unworthy. On the contrary, I have been a Dylan fan since my brother introduced me to him some 45 years ago. For decades, I defended Dylan against various allegations made against him including ‘he can’t sing’, ‘he steals from others’, ‘he doesn’t communicate with his audience during live performances’, ‘he’s a self-hating Jew’, and ‘he’s overrrated’. After a while, I stopped defending Dylan and just smiled at his detractors. I guess I had come to the realization that nothing I was going to say would likely change their mind, just as nothing they could come up with was going to transform my opinion.
That Dylan is a superior lyricist who influenced countless musicians who in turn have had a significant impact, is, I believe, abundantly clear. Now whether I would classify his work as literature is not as clear.
Part of this is due to the fact that “literature” is not an easy concept to pin down. A rather basic definition of literature is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”. So, now we run into language problems. What makes something “superior”? Who decides this? How long does writing need to last to be considered “lasting”? What qualities loan something “artistic merit”? Answering these questions is probably something a great majority of both Dylan detractors and defenders would be loathe to do. Nonetheless, I will try to do so.
I hazard that what makes something “superior” in terms of writing is its originality and effectiveness in utilizing words and literary techniques to forward a theme or thought. Literary techniques in songwriting could include vivid imagery, symbolism, alliteration, oxymoron, pun, rhyme, rhythm, irony, allusion and tone among many others. Here’s a frequently quoted example of Dylan’s prowess with imagery:
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow. _”Mr. Tambourine Man”
Is it superior? Well, who has the expertise to answer this? One would think that the Nobel Prize Committee might. Does Dylan master other techniques besides imagery? Well, here’s an example of allusion in his work:
Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row. “Desolation Row”
As for Dylan’s use of pun, consider this from the much beloved album Blood on the Tracks:
I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell “Tangled Up in Blue”
Here’s an example of symbolism in Dylan’s early anti-war work:
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall. “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”
One more example, because even I’m tiring of this now, but here’s Dylan employing some interesting rhyme and rhythm:
You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get your facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To all give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations. “Ballad of a Thin Man”
Not that this clears anything up really. Some of you might be impressed, others not so much. The same holds for professors of literature, musicologists and poets.
Then there is a separate problem of how long does a literary work have to last to be considered “lasting”? The term is bereft of specificity. Some might say Dylan has already passed this test as his early work is over fifty years old now. Others might argue that unless his work is still being listened to fifty years after Dylan’s death, then the popularity could be more due to marketing or nostalgia than to artistic merit.
So while I’m not certain Dylan’s work is worthy of a prize for literature, no matter how esteemed, I am certainly glad if it means more people will listen to his songs, take a close inspection of his lyrics and actually attempt to evaluate artistic merit.
Congratulations Bob from a fan and a lover of literature.