I have two defenses of Dylan’s Nobel. One is basically formal, and follows below. The other is temporal (which, as it happens, is also a part of his formalism), and follows the exact same logic that says if you’re going to applaud President Obama’s Peace Prize, but boo Dylan’s Literature one, then, as a wise man once shouted from the stage, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.” Or, as my friend, the novelist, songwriter, and former Seattleite Wesley “John Wesley Harding” Stace tweeted this morning:
People, in a world where Trump is the presidential nominee of a major party, Dylan can certainly be a Nobel Prize winner.
— Wesley Stace (@WesleyStace) October 13, 2016
Much as President O was awarded the 2009 Peace Prize in recognition of the fact that he was both the first black U.S. president and the first U.S. president in recent memory who was not George W. Bush, Dylan’s selection seems like a signal from Oslo that they are still familiar with the western world, and that they really hope we’re not for real with this Donald Trump bullshit.
It also serves as a momentary refuge from that same disgraceful horrorshow, and, a reminder that, as the man himself sang, “It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.”
I’ve enjoyed watching the Dylan wars light up again this morning, because I am one of that ever diminishing tribe of people who thinks the little charmer deserves every honor this godless rock has ever devised. Fuck “Literature,” I think he deserves a Nobel just for how his hair looked in 1966. Have you seen his face make-up on the Rolling Thunder tour? Back up the MacArthur truck, fools. Bob Dylan should be knighted, sainted, alchemized.
Certain parties object because songwriting doesn’t count as literature, apparently. That will come as news to the 20th century, but okay, let’s pretend it's true. Others object because there are proper writers who deserve it more. Probably true, too. I’ve read both of Dylan’s books—one (Tarantula) is a big joke on poetry, and the other (Chronicles) is really funny and good, but mostly because it's Dylan. You wouldn’t give it a Nobel. Nothing would please me more than seeing Philip Roth’s maligned, undervalued body of work being permavalidated by Oslo. However, had Roth been given the nod, we’d all be having a conversation about misogyny, which we are already having, and about time, too.
Rich wasn’t wrong when he said 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.
Sure, fair, fine. Even if the example he cited (and, I’m guessing, had to go truffle snufflin' for) of lyrics looking dumb on the page is the strawest man in town.
The thing is, Dylan’s literary contribution isn’t necessarily about words on a page. Just as art isn’t necessarily just a painting of a thing. It will not be news to anyone that literature can be an idea, too. The committee cited him not for poetry proper or making pop songs extra smart (both of which accomplishments he has been unjustly credited/saddled with from the beginning), but for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
If you aren’t sure what that means, don’t be alarmed. It doesn’t mean anything. Swedish people clearly have more money than sense—which must be why they give all their munitions profits away to smart people. Here’s what I wish it meant:
It's useful to consider Dylan alongside 1948 Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot, who became a funnel/interlocutor/interrogator (or, to borrow the Swedish Academy’s term, “sampler”) of the elements of the canonical classical education, which were only then starting to be actually erased from the memory of the West. “The Waste Land” was only the most conspicuous and shattering example of Eliot harnessing the ghosts of antiquity, mixing them with the vulgar present, and making a hybrid new thing out of them. James Joyce never won a Nobel, but his Ulysses did the same thing. (Probably Finnegan’s Wake, too, but I could never get through it.)
"And I take the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature, when it is given to a poet, to be primarily an assertion of the supra-national value of poetry. To make that affirmation, it is necessary from time to time to designate a poet: and I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry."
More than any one song or album, this same archival-resurrection-palimpsest form—evoked by the guitar and the voice—is Dylan’s great innovation. Intentionally or not, he recognized early on that the nature of popular music was to construct a permanent highway through the collective memory of musical traditions. The current moment was always the crucial factor in what listeners prized most. So he invented a sound, a style, a self that acted as a funnel for the history of American music.
Woody Guthrie was the early, self-conscious (and then still-living, though fixing-to-die-forgotten example), but other artists who turn up in Dylan’s goulash include Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Ira Gershwin, Jerry Leiber, Robert Johnson, W.C. Handy, and plenty of other far more obscure contributors to the secret songbook of this country. To many people, Dylan’s charisma helped make obscurity a mark of honor, as though the layers of meaning under/within a song or a line, or even a chord progression were there to be mined, explored, more deeply understood—as opposed to ignored or resented.
Likewise with a more international bohemian poetic and literary tradition in the lyrics, of which much more has been made, and of which much less need be said, lest I undermine my project, EXCEPT to note the romance of that tradition, and the peculiar way that the meaning of language is both essential and negligible to the project of songwriting. Hence: Rimbaud and Verlaine, Ginsberg and all the lesser Beats (i.e. all the Beats), Balzac, Blake, Whitman, et al. But the badge of poet, like the badge of folk music, was pinned on him by the world, and became distractions from what made him both great and important.
Because of the intrinsically time-stamped, seemingly disposable nature of popular songcraft, the reference points buried inside Dylan’s songs had not been widely considered important enough to salvage. That’s why they were all just lying there in the landfill of the collective musical unconscious when he came along. Ripe for the gleaning. His conversion of low sources into high art via the defiantly middlebrow milieu of pop music (especially once he went electric), went beyond formal considerations of music v. poetry v. literature. It constituted an expansion of all artistic forms so explosive that people are still arguing about it, contentiously, this very minute, on the stupid internet. Just as they have been arguing about it in newspapers, newsletters, TV, radio, books, cocktail parties, dorm rooms, and bars for more than 50 years.
Dylan’s work is contained in songs, on albums, in films, and in live shows. But if you reduce it even further, the project is really contained in the corporeal form of the author of all this obscurant, unexplained, endlessly divisive, infinitely delightful material. Yes, author. Bob Dylan is the author of all that Dylaniana—the primary and secondary sources, the facts and speculations, the form and the investigation of the form. In exactly the same way, you might say, that poetry itself contains its own music, and it’s the poet’s job to write it, but it’s the readers job to hear it. Bob Dylan is a form, a paradigm, a cosmology, a literature, all unto himself.
A Nobel Prize is the least of what he is owed.
Oh, and PS, Confidential to Rich: Fair enough about the lyrics on the page, but here are a few Dylan couplets and verses that you could have used while still being a LITTLE MORE RESPECTFUL. These lines serve as—if not an argument for his deserving a poetry prize, then at least a way of recognizing that even when the record ends, the lyrics do have a way of creating a relevant epigrammatic commentary on reality that pop music was born to have. True that they don’t truly sing without the music to accompany them, and the voice to give them air. But if you’ve heard that music and that voice, it never truly leaves your mind. The words are just the vessel.
“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/Abe said, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’
(“Highway 61 Revisited”)
“You hand in your ticket and you go watch the geek/
Who immediately walks up to you when he hears you speak/
And says, ‘How does it feel to be such a freak?’”
(“Ballad of a Thin Man”)
“She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand/
She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past.’
I say, ‘You can’t? What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can.’”
“Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen/
She was 51 years old and gave birth to 10 children/
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage/
And never sat once at the head of the table/
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table/
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table/
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level/
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane/
That sailed through the air and came down through the room/
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle/
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger”
(“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”)
“I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free/
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.”
“She said, ‘Where you been?’ I said, ‘No place special’
She said, ‘You look different.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess.’
She said, ‘You been gone.’ I said, ‘That’s only natural’
She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said, ‘If you want me to, yes!’”
“Oh, the only decent thing I did when I worked as a postal clerk/
Was to haul your picture down off the wall near the cage where I used to work/
Was I a fool or not to try to protect your identity?/
You looked a little burned out, my friend, I thought it might be up to me”
(“Up To Me”)
“Try to be pure at heart, they arrest you for robbery/
Mistake your shyness for aloofness, your silence for snobbery”
(“The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”)
“In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
(“My Back Pages”)
“Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and ya do it well
I’ll do it for you, honey baby
Can’t you tell?”
(“Buckets of Rain”)
“Well, I looked at my watch
I looked at my wrist
Punched myself in the face
With my fist
I took my potatoes
Down to be mashed
Then I made it over
To that million dollar bash”
(“Million Dollar Bash”)
“Hazel, dirty-blonde hair
I wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen with you anywhere”