Bob Dylan has been a “poet” for 50 years, give or take. Almost from his first appearance on the folk scene, his lyrics – on war, love, faith, death, power, desire – have been parsed, analyzed, sifted for hidden meanings, compared with Shakespeare and included in scholarly anthologies.
So it shouldn’t be particularly radical that the man who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “I Shall Be Released” and “Like A Rolling Stone” and so many other American classics would win the Nobel Prize in literature, as he did on Thursday.
But of course, like all things Dylan, it somehow is.
“Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars,” the National Book Critics Award finalist Rabih Alameddine tweeted in astonishment after the announcement.
“You don’t go to the hardware store for oranges, as they say, and if you want poetry, you don’t go to Bob Dylan,” cultural critic Stephen Metcalf wrote in Slate.
This is a big, fragmented planet, with less and less to bind us, and yet from Moscow to Beijing to Greenwich Village few corners have not been touched and deepened by Dylan’s words and music.
Their arguments, and others – the Scottish author of “Trainspotting,” Irvine Welsh, called the Nobel “an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies” – focused on the legitimate artistic differences between, say, a book and a piece of music, and the many deserving authors and poets, worldwide, who had poured their life’s work into making words transcend pages.
The Washington Post’s book editor, Ron Charles, wrote that when he heard the announcement “my first thought was, ‘That’s the strangest pronunciation of ‘Don DeLillo’ I’ve ever heard.”
But the Swedish Academy, which presents the prizes, pointed out that some of the most important poetry of Homer and Sappho was set to music, and that Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” And Joyce Carol Oates, who, like DeLillo, was an obvious contender, tweeted that “his haunting music & lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, literary.”
“Regardless of what you think about Mr. Dylan’s fitness to join the ranks of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner as American Nobel laureates, you cannot deny his influence on modern song-writing,” The Economist noted. “As Mr. Dylan was recording his first singles, radios across the land blared ‘round, round, get around, I get around’ and ‘she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’.”
Here in California, where Dylan performed at Coachella last week and pilgrims search for his old Malibu compound, he is one artist, one celebrity – for that matter, one laureate – among many. And the guy who wrote “look out kid / they keep it all hid” would perhaps be the last to make too big a deal of establishment acclaim.
Still, we celebrate. This is a big, fragmented planet, with less and less to bind us, and yet from Moscow to Beijing to Greenwich Village few corners have not been touched and deepened by Dylan’s words and music. His “literature” awakened the sleeping giant of a generation, and changed the world, radically, in his own lifetime.
That’s something few artists can say – or sing.