A Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan

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(Authors Photos from CD Collection)

First there was John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Now boldly comes Bob Dylan who will accept the Nobel Prize for Literature he was awarded last Thursday. I find it moronic that some object to his nomination.

Just the same, allow me to disarm the critics in their logic one point at a time.

To begin with, high-brow objectors cite that Dylan has, in essence, had his day in the sun, after having received Grammy Awards, a 1991 Lifetime Achievement Award, and of course his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. So what?

Second, the pundits attempt to make the point that Dylan is a songwriter but not a “writer”. Is Kris Kristofferson (a Rhodes Scholar) not a “writer”? His American Express Card once had the word “Writer” printed on the face of the credit card. Marginalizing Dylan as solely a musician but not a writer is absurd.

Third, while those who object cite Dylan as a brilliant lyricist in addition to making mention of his published books of poetry and an autobiography, they argue that the Nobel committee is honoring a great musician whose writing is inseparable. They argue further that to have selected Dylan is to slander the legitimacy of fiction and poetry. This argument is easily negated by the fact that Dylan’s six-decades of work encompass poetic license, fiction and non-fiction alike.

Fourth, critics take the pot shot that the committee sought to use its “cultural currency” to make the price “relevant to a younger generation.” To these points, I turn to Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy who stated at the outset, that it had “not been a difficult decision”.

“We hoped the news would be received with joy, but you never know,” she said, comparing Dylan’s songs to the works of Homer and Sappho.

“We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

In answering the argument that Dylan is a musician and not a writer, Danius stated the artistic reach of his lyrics and poetry could not be put in a single box. “I came to realize that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago,” she said. “They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page. We enjoy [their] poetry, and I think Bob Dylan deserves to be read as a poet.”

Regarded as one of the most influential figures in contemporary popular culture, last year, Dylan said: “Critics have been giving me a hard time since day one.”

I for one am left feeling as if Dylan requires a voice in his defense. As prepared as I am to provide such a defense, three laureates have stepped forward.

Professor Seamus Perry, chair of the English faculty at Oxford University, compared Dylan’s talent to the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, calling the songwriter “representative and yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats”.

Former poet laureate Andrew Motion said the prize was “a wonderful acknowledgement of Dylan’s genius. For 50 and some years he has bent, coaxed, teased and persuaded words into lyric and narrative shapes that are at once extraordinary and inevitable.”

The author Joyce Carol Oates said there should be no question about Dylan’s work being considered literature, praising the academy’s “inspired and original choice”.

“His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, literary,” she added.

However, here is the closing argument by Sara Danius that blows past any need I may feel to defend Bob Dylan and definitively locks out his detractors.

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Referencing Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde as a point of departure, Danius summarized the work well. “It’s an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains, and his pictorial way of thinking,” she said. Danius admitted, she was “not really” a Dylan fan when she was younger and that she preferred the works of David Bowie. “Perhaps it’s a question of generation – today I’m a lover of Bob Dylan,” she said.

It’s worth mentioning that the winner of the Nobel Prize is chosen by 18 members of the academy, who look for “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, according to Alfred Nobel’s will.

Bob Dylan has accomplished this virtuous achievement well.

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