Bob Dylan just won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature. If you somehow do not know who Bob Dylan is, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, suggests you start with Blonde on Blonde.
But okay, sure. Give Dylan the prize for literature. Break Philip Roth's heart like that. Really twist the knife. Why not.
After all, the Nobel Prize committee gets to decide what the Nobel Prize committee thinks is literature. Dylan certainly did, as the committee says, create "new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” And he is unquestionably one of the greatest songwriters who has ever lived. And songwriting might well be considered a form of literature. WHY NOT? I’d say that playwrighting is a form of literature, but would I say that screenwriting was a form of literature and give the prize to Charlie Kaufmann?
I'm getting off track. The point is this: in a post-announcement interview, Danius was asked whether Dylan deserved the award for literature. She said, "of course he does," adding: "He is a great poet, he is a great poet in the English speaking tradition, and he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler.”
Now we got issues.
Dylan is a great songwriter, but he's not a poet. Poets don’t get instruments. Poets don’t get a drum, and good poets often avoid one when offered. Poets have to find music in the language itself and arrange that music in meaningful ways on the page. That is very hard to do, and it's a different task entirely from the act of writing a song. The poet can't let a bad rhyme slide for the sake of x, y, or z musical concern. And while it's true poets can perform their poetry, what really matters is what's on the page. That's what's left after the poet's death. The page is the medium of exchange between reader and writer for all of eternity, or at least until we all destroy ourselves.
And while it's true Dylan is a "master of language," it's not true that all songwriting has to demonstrate literary mastery in order to demonstrate songwriting mastery. Let's take an example from Dylan himself. Behold the chorus of "Had a Dream About You Baby:"
Her heart is jumpin'
It's really somethin'
The beat is pumpin'
My heart is thumpin'
Spent my money on you honey
My limbs are shakin'
My mind is breakin'
Limbs are shakin’, he says! Mind is breakin’, he says! Give that man approximately one million dollars! (This year, the Nobel is paying out $908,776.) Now, these lyrics work fine within a musical framework, but the fact that they look naked here on the (digital) page, the fact that it seems cruel to reference them outside the context of the song, the fact that you're thinking of seven stellar Dylan lines right now, is enough to show that the poet and the songwriter are working in very different—and importantly different—modes.
And please take the reverse case. Pegging Dylan as a poet or a writer of literature robs him, a little, of his musical genius. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face,” Dylan sings in "Visions of Johanna." That's a good line. Many poets would trade you an armful of hyacinths for a line like that. But that line reaches its fullest expression only when Dylan howls like a ghost on the words “ghost” and “howl,” as if he were that electric spirit.
Giving the medal to Dylan awards him for only part of his art's greatness, which is ultimately a disservice to him and a disservice to literature. Many other great writers deserve this award. But I guess there's always next year.