Guns-a-blazing, Bob Dylan kicked the door wide open to the notion that songs are poetry. After the smoke cleared, many of us innocent bystanders struggled for decades to argue that songs sung can be and are literature. Ineffectively, it seems. And some were arguing this before Dylan’s in-bursting outburst. And now our argument is recognized and championed in a way we did not dare imagine: Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.
To my surprise, several music journalists seem to think the prize should have gone to a Real Writer. “It’s weird,” wrote Matthew Schnipper, an editor for Pitchfork, in “The World Does Not Need Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize Winner in Literature.”
“They gave one of the world’s biggest literary prizes,” Schnipper complained, “to a singer-songwriter. . . . [Dylan is] a musician and his relationship with words is as a lyricist, someone whose prose [sic] exists inexorably with music.” [Lyrics, by definition, are not prose.]
Yes, and in the same way the poetry of Shakespeare (to whom Dylan humbly compared himself in his acceptance speech) exists inexorably with its metrical form and its rhyme schemes, what we call prosody.
“To read [Dylan’s] lyrics flatly, without the sound delivering them,” Schnipper concludes, “is to experience his art reduced.” Schnipper has forgotten something: to read Hamlet’s soliloquy flat, without the sound of Richard Burton or Mel Gibson delivering it, is to experience Shakespeare’s art reduced also. The same could be said of the plays of Eugene O’Neil, Harold Pinter or any playwright.
As certainly as Shakespeare, O’Neil and Pinter wrote their words on paper first, so did Bob Dylan. In the same way, Winston Churchill wrote the oratory that gave Britain and her allies such courage and resolve during the Second World War. O’Neil won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936; Churchill won it in 1953 and Pinter in 2005.
Yes, but Dylan is just not that good. Is that what Schnipper , if not many of us, is thinking? If so, we are wrong.
Almost single-handedly, Dylan restored prosody to the musical forms that prosody replaced. He did this completely outside academia and he did it in a completely non-academic way. He was not trying to discover and restore the exact musical forms that prosody had replaced; he was only interested in the forms close at hand. He wasn’t trying to reproduce how the Odyssey or the Iliad sounded when Homer and other ancients sang them [though both were influential, as we would find out when Dylan recorded his Nobel Lecture in Literature]. He wasn’t researching British ballads or Scottish harping to discover how Beowulf might have been sung in its original form. Nor was he arguing that literacy had replaced organic musical prosody with less organic, if not intellectual, forms such as the sestina with its mirroring rhyme schemes. Dylan instinctively knew that the hegemony of the printed page was finished and that the very word ‘literature’ was obsolete if not classist. Recording technology meant that poetry could be sung again. Not that Dylan was at all interested in proving this. His purpose was quite different and —being non-academic— immediate.
To position himself as the heir apparent to Woody Guthrie he had come across the ballads in their American hiding places: Appalachia and the Ozarks. He had come across similar narrative forms used in African American communities. I had an early recording of Dylan singing the chain gang song “Poor Lazarus,” which always stopped me in my tracks. It was in fact the first song I ever sang to an audience. I was 17.
The antiquarian and aesthetic aspects of folk material were of secondary importance to Guthrie and associates. It was the music of and for the downtrodden who, of course, were America’s impoverished and uneducated — people who had for centuries been the caretakers of pre-literate forms of poetry such as ballads. The primary importance of this music was in how easily it could be used to communicate the grievances of and shameful injustices committed against these people, injustices in-progress at the time. Guthrie prided himself in his ability to work seamlessly and quickly in these forms. Young Bob Dylan discovered he was just as facile and perhaps more able. And thus he came to the attention of Pete Seeger and producer John Hammond.
And that might have been that. But Robert Zimmerman was a poseur, an arrogant thief, a liar and self-aggrandizer. He was spiteful and ungrateful. He was also smart and fearless. What else he was and is I do not know. However, these were the characteristics which allowed him to see that he had taught himself a lost form of poetry and if it was poetry he could throw anything he wanted at it. The more unlikely the content, the taller Bob Dylan stood. The argument that Dylan’s poetry read and not sung reveals nothing more than a sort of barnstorming juvenilia is beside the point. His barnstorming juvenilia had rescued poetry from academia and the printed page. And it did so with nobody’s help or approval.
His retro-revolution in form aside, the content of Dylan’s songs are often quite beautiful. “She Belongs to Me” and “I Shall Be Released” come to mind. He has written songs of great lyrical power. “It’s Alright, Ma,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Hurricane.”
The latter, Schnipper calls an “anthem . . . about the false imprisonment of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.” It is not an anthem but a ballad strong enough to rival any in the Anglo-Celtic tradition, a tradition that Dylan knew very well. It was also strong enough to be a primary catalyst in Carter’s eventual release. From the very start of his career, Bob Dylan wrote songs to foment social change and right egregious wrongs. “Hurricane” caps that endeavor.
Bob Dylan opened the door for all of us. He deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature.