Dylan is one of the greatest artists of his time. But his genius wasn’t about Literature.
Part 1 of a series.
The Nobel Committee today awarded American folk icon Bob Dylan its annual prize for Literature. Not surprisingly, reactions have been mixed.
I’m a bit torn myself. There is no questioning at all the immensity of Dylan’s artistic accomplishments, and there’s perhaps even less argument to be had over the influence he has wielded not only over popular music, but over the larger culture. It is simply impossible to imagine what the US would look like today had he never been born, but we can start by considering his role in the anti-war movement of the ’60s. In truth, you could look at his centrality to the revolts that eventually led to the end of that war and make a case that he deserved the Peace Prize.
And what about the who’s who of musical artists who followed in his steps? A very small catalog of those who owe their souls to Dylan would include these names, and if there’s nobody on here that you love and admire you just don’t like music.
|Bruce Springsteen||John Hiatt||John Mellencamp|
|John Prine||Leonard Cohen||Leon Russell|
|Joni Mitchell||Loudon Wainwright III||Lou Reed|
|Neil Young||Randy Newman||Nick Lowe|
|Patti Smith||Richie Havens||Paul Simon|
|The Pretenders||The Beatles||Phil Ochs|
|The Byrds||The Replacements||R.E.M.|
|Tom Petty||Tim Buckley||Robyn Hitchcock|
|Warren Zevon||Tom Waits||Roy Harper|
|Ben Harper||Townes Van Zandt||Simon & Garfunkel|
|Bonnie Raitt||Van Morrison||Steely Dan|
|Buffalo Springfield||Billy Bragg||Steve Earle|
|Creedence Clearwater Revival||David Crosby||The Animals|
|Crosby, Stills & Nash||Elvis Costello||The Dead Weather|
|Dire Straits||Eric Clapton||Tracy Chapman|
|Jefferson Airplane||Jackson Browne||Santana|
|Jimi Hendrix||Joe Ely|
In other words, I can’t craft an argument that Bob Dylan’s legacy isn’t worthy on a Nobel scale.
On the other hand, I wrestle with the fact that the award is in Literature because his genius is in his lyrics and lyrics aren’t literature. Are they?
I’ve tackled this question before. As I have noted, I spent 35 years as a poet (and occasional writer of fiction and creative non-fiction) and I hold a graduate degree in English. I also write lyrics from time to time, and have contributed to CDs by Fiction 8 and Paul Lewis. (I’m desperately hoping to add some more artists to this way-too-small list.) So while I’m not massively famous (or remotely famous) on either count, I do know a bit about lit and music.
We’re fond of calling our great rock stars poets. Dylan is a poet. Springsteen is a poet. John Lennon was a poet. Jim Morrison (*gag*) was a poet. And so on. Certainly the first three (have) produced some marvelous words, but as a poet – forgive me if I call myself a “real” poet here – I’ve never quite been willing to accord their work the status of poetry. This isn’t necessarily a slam – their work isn’t architecture, either.
Of all the great songwriters I’ve encountered, precious few wrote songs that work as poetry – that is, they work as words on their own. Most great rock poetry sounds pretty silly once you take away the music. Mark Knopfler had a couple moments early on, and Fish is probably the best at crafting lyrics that stand in their own right.
None of this means that what your favorite rock poet is doing isn’t wonderful. It’s just something else, and needs to be evaluated on its own terms.
Just as I can’t argue against Dylan’s greatness, I can’t argue for him as a literary figure. Dylan is to lit what Monet was to architecture.
In the end, I find myself happy that one of our epic talents has been recognized for his accomplishments, yet unhappy that the recognition is wholly inappropriate to what his accomplishments actually were.
I guess there’s a simple solution: we need a Nobel Prize in Rock.
Of course, how long would it be before they started handing it out to people like Madonna….