Bob Dylan — folk singer, American national poet, enigma — is the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. The announcement was a surprise. Dylan had long been regarded as having an outside shot at the prize, but after a short run of writers virtually unknown outside their home countries the awarding of the Nobel to a famous singer is a departure, and not uncontroversial. Reactions from the American press ranged from derisive (Anna North in the New York Times) to celebratory (David Remnick in the New Yorker).
Many people at Stanford and elsewhere have been eager to jump into the lively discourse over the prize, without taking a second to learn (or remind themselves) about who Dylan is, what his history is and what he did to earn the prize. Before jumping in myself, I’d like to take a second to flip through Dylan’s back pages. It’s worth the time.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, was raised in a Jewish household, and moved to New York in his early twenties. There he won a contract from Columbia Records and became a prominent voice in the American civil rights and antiwar movements, writing a series of Woody Guthrie-influenced, biting ballads like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” But what made Dylan immortal was what he did after that. Between 1964 and 1965, he successively imploded and transcended nearly everything that had theretofore made him who he was: Woody Guthrie’s influence, the strident, holier-than-thou rhetoric of his left-leaning friends, and, finally, American folk itself. Throwing friends, allegiances, expectations (not to mention Joan Baez) to the wind with the controversial electric side of his 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home,” Dylan’s heel–turn had tremendous consequences.
Most perilously, he’d alienated his fan base. Folk fans who had accepted Dylan as heir to Woody Guthrie’s crown felt betrayed by his new electric guitar and apolitical, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Nothing illustrates this better than the famous scene from Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Dylan documentary “No Direction Home.” Footage shows a disgruntled fan calling Dylan “Judas” at his 1966 concert in Manchester, England. “You’re a liar,” Dylan sneers back, “I don’t believe you.” He turns to the band, tells them to “play it fucking loud,” and launches into perhaps the most celestially bitter, pure and vitriolic rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” on record.
The mid-1960s period in Dylan’s oeuvre is one of the most artistically variegated and literarily significant in American history. Dylan offers a Yeatsianly incisive self-criticism of his younger self on “My Back Pages” (from 1964’s alienated but still-folksy “Another Side of Bob Dylan”). He hallucinates imaginative worlds where T.S. Eliot fights with Ezra Pound on “Desolation Row” (from 1965’s freewheeling — pardon the anachronism — “Highway 61 Revisited”). He achieves the most perfect articulation of what he called “that wild mercury sound I have in my head” with his 1966 magnum opus “Blonde on Blonde.” And in the meantime, the over–six-minute-long “Like a Rolling Stone” shattered and recast the meaning of the pop single. Like the novels that Don DeLillo would write decades later, his half-nonsensical yet inescapable, haunting lyric seemed to deal with something undeniably human yet mystically American. As Dylan would later sing on his 2009 album “Together Through Life,” this was when it became clear he really did have “the blood of the land in my voice.”
After a motorcycle accident which remains shrouded in mystery, Dylan entered a quieter period in his work and life. Bright spots include 1969’s “Nashville Skyline,” featuring a country-rock and vocally melodic approach, but the highlight of Dylan’s next decade was unquestionably 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks,” a memorial to the collapse of his marriage.
From that album, “Idiot Wind” should be enough to silence any of the various naysayers who hold that Dylan is no poet. In an apocalyptic borderland where smoke pours from broken trains and wild horses roam, he tempers the hatred in his heart to throw cold light on the impossibility of true human connection: “You’ll never know the hurt I suffer / Nor all the pain I rise above, / And I’ll never know the same about you / Your holiness or your kind of love / And it makes me feel so sorry.”
No one is innocent in “Idiot Wind.” As the great Stanford luminary and eminent Irish poet Eavan Boland says of William Butler Yeats, one litmus test of a poet is whether she exempts herself from the imaginative reality she constructs. Just as Yeats never pardons himself, Dylan shows on “Blood on the Tracks” that, in the boundless country of his hatred (a certain deep-set, stringy meanness, raised to the highest pinnacle of art, being in some way Dylan’s most fundamental quality) — neither he nor anyone else is safe.
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Discussion of the next several decades of Dylan — his 80s gospel nadir, his quiet 90s and his magnificent millennial reincarnation, burr in his voice like Satchmo — can be saved for later. Instead we can turn to the questions raised by his Nobel: Is Dylan a poet? Did he deserve the prize more than Murakami, Roth and a world full of writers starving for recognition?
It is certainly true that Dylan’s work is different from the work of recent laureates. The anti-Dylan crowd holds that Dylan’s work can’t be poetry because it’s based not on text, but on a certain, definitive recording. As a result, we can’t choose how to read his words — which words to stretch out? to emphasize? — because Dylan makes these choices for us. What’s more, the instruments are clearly meant to contribute to the meaning of the words; so we cannot understand the words’ meaning without the music. Finally, his words are unmoving on the page alone.
There’s some truth to this argument. But what’s often been said about Dylan is also true: He never plays the same song twice. This undermines the notion of any one version of a song as definitive. And although often exquisite, the music surrounding Dylan’s lyrics is less tied to the meaning of the words than it seems. We can look at Wilco, a band that also has a claim to writing lyrics of high poetic quality, but who tend to work much more with soundscape — to the extent that, unlike Dylan, it is difficult to dissociate the words from their musical context. For Dylan, the key to every song is the words themselves, not how they’re packaged.
As for the Nobel committee, they explained their choice by analogizing Dylan’s sung poetry to Homer’s or Sappho’s. As any Stanford English professor will remind us, the notion of poetry as a primarily page-based endeavor, unaccompanied by music, is a distinctly recent phenomenon. Some say it’s the result of nothing more than the longstanding penchant of literary scholars to analyze the works of poets as words on a page, never spoken nor sung. The prestige associated with this practice led later writers to compose directly and only on the page. In this view, debates over whether the musicality of Dylan’s songs disqualify them as poetry become moot.
Critic John Cotter, writing for “The Smart Set,” recently penned an article arguing Dylan’s words aren’t literature because they don’t live on a page. But only a year earlier he’d written a different article speaking favorably about how contemporary short-story writers in America are blurring lines between poetry and prose. To praise those who transcend genre and definitions of literature and then to turn around and criticize Dylan’s Nobel on grounds of genre and definition smacks of hypocrisy and tribal self-interest. This controversy, if it has shown anything, has shown that even in the twenty-first century there are rules left to break in literature.
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What does Dylan as Nobel laureate mean for American poetry?
Dylan is that distinct rarity in America: a poet whose work is both of quality and has had a large, constant audience for more than half a century. He shows a way forward for American poetry, which today is written mostly by a small group of people who publish each other’s more and more outlandish poems in Poetry Magazine in order to have nobody read them. By bringing lyric and lyrics together, he shows an American bard can still attain the status of Frost, Longfellow, Whitman. His writings are passed around, heard by children, memorized and appreciated — just as I memorized the lines to “Mr. Tambourine Man” at age eight, playing the song over and over on a Discman while sitting in the back seat of a sedan.
And if Dylan’s Nobel is a boon for American poetry, it’s perhaps a greater boon for American rock and rock criticism. Rock critics have been extolling Dylan’s virtue for decades, and this prestigious Swedish endorsement might boost rock criticism’s reputation. It couldn’t come at a better time, when rock music in America is, as a recent Pitchfork review of a Kurt Vile album put it, “becoming just another genre instead of the center of the musical universe.” We can hope that Dylan’s coronation will inspire a new generation of American musicians to rise to his lyrical example, and be recognized for their efforts.
As I write this, Dylan has just tipped his hat to the Nobel committee without quite making it clear whether he’ll be in Sweden to accept his award. I have undying respect for this man who, as only great geniuses can, strikes that delicate balance between engaging with the establishment and terrorizing it, exploding it, ignoring it. If he does decide to go to Sweden and accept his award, it will almost certainly be with a rambling, mysterious speech that few will pretend to understand. In either case, it won’t be long before he slinks back into the shadows, goes back on tour. Even on stage, as he has been for so much of his life, he is many-hatted, impossible to corner. Alive, he is already a myth. Where will he go next? Where is he now? Somewhere at the intersection of nonsense, humanity, and America. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.
Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu