Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and so later this year he will receive approximately $900,000, his share of treasures that have accumulated in the main thanks to Alfred Nobel’s patented inventions of the high explosives dynamite and gelignite, which inventions have successfully blown so many people to kingdom come over the years. (Who’s the Master of War now, huh?)
And as I may be one of the 500 biggest Bob Dylan fans in the world, I have to start by graciously saying “Congratulations.” (And this is to quote the Nobel-winning words of Dylan himself.) If it makes Bob happy, I’m happy. However, he is a quirky fellow, and I honestly have no idea what this means to him, or if it means anything at all. It’s possible he’ll give us a clue at some stage. (My greatest hope is that he takes the opportunity to make a funny and provocative speech.)
Being such an obsessive Dylan fan, the arrival of the award was not a great shock to me. The idea of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature has been out there for a long time, probably since shortly after his first album landed in the bin at Woolworth’s. It has been a kind of fever dream of many baby boomers, and you might say it is the most benign of such dreams to have become reality.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a strong opinion as to whether he ought to receive the award, but it’s always seemed to me it would be an odd fit. In the words of Johnny Mercer, I guess, I’m old fashioned, and “literature” to me equates to words on a page: novels, poetry. If there were a Nobel prize for popular song, Dylan would have earned it several times over, but there isn’t. At the gut level, I can’t help but wonder if the Nobel committee just wanted to break out of the box and be kind of cool. Anyone can be seduced by the thought of headlines and attention (and I don’t know when there have ever been so many headlines about a Nobel prize for literature).
Dylan is brilliant, and his way with words is inspired beyond expressing, so it’s just a question of categories, but maybe those matter. You can reflect in an enormously rewarding way on how he has used language, and I love the ways that the great Christopher Ricks has done so, but I think Ricks also has always acknowledged that the words are written to be sung, and it is in hearing them sung to the music Dylan composed for them that they come to full life. You can pick them apart on the printed page and learn something from doing so, but you can only truly appreciate them by hearing them sung to those melodies.
Leonard Cohen responded to the news of the award in classic and concise fashion, saying that it was “like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” So we are left to wonder whether Cohen thinks it is therefore perfectly appropriate or incredibly crass. (When someone does actually put a medal on Mount Everest we will be better able to judge.)
Cohen is a useful reference point in all of this. I know I’m not alone in thinking of Leonard Cohen as a poet who puts music to his poems. (He’s published poems in books of poetry, and some of them became songs.) His works don’t require the musical dynamic to be effective or comprehensible; the music and his singing are wonderful bonuses. How many of Dylan’s lyrics fully express themselves absent their melodies, and without being sung? (This is NOT a knock to his craft, but merely a recognition that it is a multi-faceted craft.)
Dylan didn’t earn the Nobel for his books: Tarantula (the poignant story of a highly-caffeinated spider) and Chronicles: Volume 1 (a delightful but certainly not sublime memoir).
And once you’ve given the Nobel prize for literature to a writer of popular songs, it does rather open the door to a lot of candidates who aren’t normally considered to be contenders. However, I choose not to worry about this; I will leave it to the high-explosive experts of Nobel.
The award to Dylan, they say, is “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” He’s done that, indeed, by absorbing so much and sending it out again through the prism of his ineffable talent. Literature or no, it’s been quite something. And I can honestly profess to having no fear as to how he’s going to spend the nine hundred grand …