Those for whom awarding a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is low brow populism just don’t get the poet who opened a new frontier in literary expression, writes Dani Garavelli
On a dank day in June 2004, Bob Dylan – his hair tousled and wearing boots of leather – sat impassively in the Younger Hall in St Andrews University as Professor Neil Corcoran talked of the significance of his oeuvre, and a hard rain fell outside.
Dylan had surprised everyone by turning up in person to collect his honorary degree; but if he was moved by Corcoran’s paean to his talents it was impossible to tell. Later, as scarlet-robed students sang Blowing In The Wind, his face remained a mask, and, when it was over, he disappeared through a side door without a word. But then that’s Dylan: messing with our heads since 1961. Anything short of inscrutability would have been a disappointment.
Dylan was performing in Las Vegas last week when the news he had been given the Nobel Prize in Literature broke. He reacted in his usual way; which is to say he failed to acknowledge it, carrying on with his set as if the musical/literary world hadn’t just gone into meltdown.
Surely, though, this thrawn septuagenarian, who has spent his life confounding expectations, must have enjoyed an inward chuckle at the furore the Swedish Academy’s announcement had caused. Within seconds, Twitter was self-combusting, as Dylan lovers and Dylan haters competed to express their joy or distaste.
There were the diehards, who thought it was high time his cultural contribution was acknowledged, and the “meh”-ers who have always believed him overrated. There were the whatabouters, who argued Philip Roth or Margaret Atwood were more worthy candidates, and the contrarians, who just wanted a fight.
The most common response from the naysayers, however, seemed to be the old saw: that Dylan is a fine songwriter, but not your actual poet ; that his words, while often thrilling, work only when set to music.
Dylan – the ultimate shapeshifter – has wilfully fed this false dichotomy, variously positing himself as “a poet first and a musician second” and “more of a song and dance man”. But those observers who tweeted sarcastic comments such as “Can’t wait for Don DeLillo to get his Grammy” seemed to miss these points: Dylan has also written long-form (his “memoir” Chronicles was widely acclaimed) and, in any case, the strict boundaries between different literary forms vanished long ago.
As the late Ian Bell – author of two Dylan biographies, Once Upon A Time and Time Out Of Mind – pointed out in an interview with the Scottish Poetry Library: “Those people who say he is not a poet tend to be using definitions and yardsticks which are positively archaic in the 21st century. Most of the rules for defining what is poetry were blown apart by modernism and have not come back together again.”
Another way of looking at it is that literature has come full circle, from the days before the printing press, when stories and poems were handed down orally. This is what Sara Danils, Secretary of the Swedish Academy, meant when she said: “If you look back 5,000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same for Bob Dylan.”
A stronger comparison might be with Robert Burns, who plundered the folk tradition to create new verse, and didn’t have to contend with arguments over whether he was a songwriter or a poet; or whether his work was high or low brow.
“Dylan went so far back into the craft of what he was doing he was able to innovate and change it,” says Colin Waters, Dylan fan and communications officer with the Scottish Poetry Library.
“He had a fantastic knowledge of the lyric in ballad form. He knew about the Scottish Border ballads and also what Greil Marcus called the ‘Old, Weird America’; the Appalachian folk ballads and all the civil war songs. But he was also keyed into what was going on in New York at that time.
“He found a perfect marriage between the Beat poetry of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and these older ballads forms. And this collision between the modern and the very old was so unusual it created something new and perhaps eternal.”
You could spend hours talking about Dylan’s use of language: the haunting power of lines such as “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” from Visions Of Johanna, the free-wheeling mysticism of Mr Tambourine Man or the shifting perspectives of the epic Tangled Up In Blue.
There’s his impressive tonal range too: from the scathing contempt of songs such as Like A Rolling Stone and Positively 4th Street to the tenderness of I Want You and Shelter From The Storm; from the anger of protest songs such as The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll and Hurricane to the humour of Clothes Line Saga. “He’s done what every great poet has done: he’s been the political commentator, the romantic troubadour, the comedian, the enigma; he’s exhilarated, infuriated, mobilised, revolutionised, consoled and confused in equal measure,” says Dr Jim Byatt, teaching fellow in modern and contemporary literature at St Andrews University. “And many more people have sung Blowin’ In The Wind than have ever recited TS Eliot’s The Waste Land or Ginsberg’s Howl.”
OK, so I admit it: I am biased. Robert Zimmerman’s songs – played non-stop by my parents – seeped into my consciousness at a young age. I knew Dylan before I knew Roald Dahl, and I was captivated by his motley characters – the ragged clowns and seasick sailors, the empty-handed painters and the blind man at the gate – by the dissonant images and free association of words. From Dylan, I learned about rhythm and allegory; about irony and double meanings. If going to church taught me the concept of redemption, then Dylan taught me about scepticism, disillusionment and beauty.
If this were not the case, perhaps I would be with the many women bemoaning the fetishising of another elderly white man. But we are all shaped by our pasts, and so I will always believe Dylan’s place in the literary pantheon is unassailable.
Thankfully, a whole body of academic work exists to back me up : there is Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions Of Sin, Stephen Scobie’s Alias Bob Dylan and Do You, Mr Jones? Bob Dylan With The Poets And The Professors, a collection of essays edited by the aforementioned Corcoran. Those essays examine, among other things, “the riffing mind at work”; his names; his literal and spiritual journeys; his uncompromising honesty; and the “last words” of his songs.
Other essays have analysed specific works. Professor Aidan Day, formerly of Dundee University, has drawn parallels between the central character in The Man In The Long Black Coat and Satan in William Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, while Dylan’s song of seduction Lay Lady Lady has been compared to Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress.
Some suggest Dylan’s influence ranks alongside that of Shakespeare, with lines such as – “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows” and “money doesn’t talk, it swears”, finding their way into the lexicon. “Even people like my elderly aunt have heard lines like, ‘the answer my friend is blowing in the wind’; they have attained the sort of timelessness great poetry has,” Waters says.
From his early 20s on, Dylan read voraciously, immersing himself in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and TS Eliot, the novels of Leo Tolstoy and F Scott Fitzgerald, the short stories of HG Wells. Many of his works make reference to writers and the power of words. In Tangled Up In Blue he compares a book of poems to Dante’s and continues: ‘Every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burnin’ coal / Pourin’ off of every page / Like it was written in my soul’. Desolation Row includes the line: ‘Ezra Pound and TS Eliot / Fighting in the Captain’s tower.’
“I bet there is nobody on this planet who has done more to get people into poetry than Bob Dylan,” says Waters. “I think the very fact he mentions Eliot, Pound and Rimbaud will have led generations to read them.”
Stuart Taylor, doctoral candidate in contemporary American literature at Glasgow University, is also a fan. “Dylan’s body of written work is enormous and his awareness of poets from the transcendentalist Emersonian line, and Edgar Allan Poe and the American Gothic tradition is remarkable,” he says.
“I think the key point, though, is that his own poetic voice has had such an influence on popular culture and the higher end of literary output as well; you can see even it in the likes Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.”
Although discussion of Dylan’s work often focuses on the period of intense productivity between 1965 and 66, when Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited were recorded, what marks him out is his sustained creativity; his ability to keep reinventing himself over six decades.
“It’s this desire not to be pigeon-holed, to play with different personae, which is a defining characteristic of modern literature,” says Taylor. Asked to pick one song that showcases Dylan’s poetic capabilities, he picks Desolation Row, but says another favourite is All The Tired Horses from Self Portrait.
“There’s an incredible two lines which are repeated and repeated: ‘All the tired horses in the sun/ How am I supposed to get any riding done?’ It becomes so hypnotic, there’s a double edge to the words “riding” and “writing”, but you can’t quite place it.”
Accusations of plagiarism continue to be thrown at Dylan by his detractors. Dominic Behan, the brother of Brendan, accused him of appropriating not only the tune, but also the concept of his Irish rebel song The Patriot Game for With God On Our Side. Phrases from Jack London novels have been found in Chronicles.
As Waters points out, Dylan took the opening line of an old Scottish folk song “Oh, where have you been, Lord Randal, my son” and turned it into “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son” in A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, but in doing so, he created something radically new: a terrifying vision of nuclear annihilation.
“People have no problem with post-modern literature which has this magpie effect of cribbing classical quotes or stories from newspapers and turning them into something new – this kind of collage,” says Taylor. “I think that’s exactly what Dylan is doing.
“What I am really interested in – and what, for me, makes him an artist on another level – is that ever since he began his never-ending tour in 1988, he has addressed his own works, reinventing them and mashing them together. It’s always a dynamic process, he never rests on his laurels.”
There are, of course, those who will continue to see giving Dylan the Nobel prize in Literature as a bad joke. For every writer who rates him – Leonard Cohen said the award was “like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain” – there will be another who, like Truman Capote, regards him as “that big phoney”. It’s easy to diminish him by mentioning songs such as Wiggle Wiggle or the experimental poems of Tarantula.
“There’s snobbery there and jealousy, and the notion of the struggling artist still pertains,” says Taylor. “Some people struggle with his obvious commercial success with his artistry.”
Another school of thought , however, says, in recognising Dylan as a worthy recipient, the Swedish Academy has broadened creative horizons. “This, hopefully, is a watershed moment,” says Byatt. “It acknowledges the cultural contribution not just of Dylan, but of a whole lineage of intellectually astute songwriters whose collective desire has been to challenge the system through popular entertainment. Dylan is, arguably, the fulcrum point that links Lead Belly to Eminem, Woody Guthrie to the Sex Pistols, Etta James to Patti Smith.”
For now, Dylan obsessives wait with bated breath for their icon’s response to his Swedish anointing. What surprises will the ceremony in December bring? Will he deliver a fascinating exposition of his craft – as he did when he received the MusiCares Person of the Year 2015 Award? Or will he accept it in stony silence?
Whatever he does or doesn’t say, the arguments over his literary merit will rage on. Let’s leave the last word to Bell, whose biographies of Dylan were arguably the finest. “If you reject this writer as a poet,” he wrote in a Scottish Poetry Library blog, “you had better be ready, please, to tell me what counts as poetry.”