Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, based on his “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the Swedish Academy responsible for awarding the prize.
"He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition," said Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius in an interview with journalist Sven Hugo Persson immediately following the announcement.
Danius was perhaps hinting at the potential for critical backlash, given that this prestigious prize has been awarded to an artist who has long gone out of his way to convince the public that he is a simple “song and dance man,” an entertainer in the Vaudeville tradition, an intrepid traveler of the rock ‘n’ roll highway. The question the choice of Dylan as the Nobel recipient answers in the affirmative is not an inconsequential one: “Do popular song lyrics qualify as literature”?
In Dylan’s case, the answer is obvious.
Long credited as being the voice of the counterculture that spurred on the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Dylan was no mere scribbler of boilerplate socio-political broadsides. By the middle of the '60s, he was writing wildly imaginative streams of imagistic poetic consciousness – as if he was channeling Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and the great French symbolists through the traditions of folk, the blues and early rock 'n’ roll. His influence is impossible to overestimate. He changed the way popular music was written, but in the process, he also legitimized that music’s ability to be at once high and low art, a poetry that acknowledged the primal and the sublime equally.
Take these words for instance:
“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” (from "Visions of Johanna").
“As human gods aim for their mark/Make everything from toy guns that spark/To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/Easy to see without looking too far/That not much is really sacred” (from "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding").
“Ophelia, she's 'neath the window/ for her I feel so afraid/On her twenty-second birthday, she already is an old maid/To her, death is quite romantic/She wears an iron vest/Her profession's her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.” (from "Desolation Row").
These lyrics represent a leap forward of epic proportions in popular song, not just from the Beatles’ “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” but from Dylan’s own earlier “protest” songs, a la “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Even when writing about popular music's most favored topic - romantic love - Dylan proved from the get-go that he was up to something different. Clearly well-read, he was able to pull inspiration and influence from a wide variety of corners in the literary canon, and he freely intermingled the ancient and the contemporary. He might borrow from the Bible to frame the romantic conflict between estranged lovers in "Oh Sister," or wrap a riff on marriage in the garments of Egyptian mythology, as he does in one of his greatest artistic triumphs, "Isis."
Being able to pull from multiple eras - one can almost see him rummaging through his library, cigarette clenched between his stained fingers, mumbling nervously to himself, pulling a dusty leather-bound tome from a high shelf, perusing it for a half-remembered line - empowered Dylan, clearly. If he took a character from Jack Kerouac and threw him out there on the road, that character would meet people from the ancient past while hitch-hiking through Mississippi, or stumble off the freeway into a Wild West scenario, where "the deputy walks on hard nails/and the preacher rides a mount/but nothing really matters much/It's doom alone that counts." ("Shelter form the Storm.")
It's that sense of a limitless possibility for the unexpected to occur that makes Dylan's writing both distinctly American and in tune with the European surrealists who'd influenced him. It's not so much of an intellectual leap to suggest that, in marrying these influences, Dylan shaped the cultural explosion of the late 60s, an era when the surreal banged up against the cruelly verifiable and did a virtual dance around the Maypole with it.
Witness the narrator of "Mr. Tambourine Man," who all but screams aloud for an experience that transcends the mundane and the expected, a cashing of the check written by Ginsberg and Kerouac, and the opportunity to explore an America that is both old and weird and young and hopeful: "Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship/My senses have been stripped/My hands can't feel to grip/ My toes too numb to step/Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering/I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade/Into my own parade/Cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it."
Read that again. Let it linger on your tongue. That's just delicious writing, no matter if you label it lyric or literature.
Dylan's forte is a psychedelic surrealism that is somehow still rooted in the earth. And before Dylan, no songwriter in popular music had ever dared to conjure it. This, one would like to believe, is the Dylan that so impressed the Swedish Academy, not the young man enthralled with Woody Guthrie and (briefly) amenable to the media's desire to cast him as a "protest singer". Dylan was always too ruggedly individualistic and too idiosyncratically brilliant to stay long in that particular cubbyhole. His vision was and remains too broad.
Dylan was a game-changer – everyone that entered the songwriting field in his wake had to deal with him.
Dylan’s name has been bandied about as a viable contestant for the Nobel Prize for years, but it has always seemed like a long-shot, this idea that a rock singer-songwriter might be asked to enter the elevated echelon of high-art literature. The announcement comes as a bit of a surprise, then. But it’s an oh-so-pleasant one.
He can be read, and he should be read, indeed.