There's no Nobel Prize for music, but even if there was, Bob Dylan should still have received one for Literature. He's not a particularly gifted guitarist or harmonica player, and his singing can be described as anything between 'idiosyncratic' and 'like a family of cats suffering from a severe case of laryngitis'. I personally like his bedraggled voice, but Dylan's vocals aren't really the reason that anyone listens to him. He is an exceptional poet first and foremost and his lyrics are the main feature of any of his songs. Some poets anthologise their work; Dylan has made a career of setting it to music.
But here lies the problem for all those who took to message boards and social media to decry the gall of the Nobel Prize panel for giving the Literature prize to Dylan, a 'musician'. Intellectual elitists and literary purists seem to be intent on denying song lyrics the lofty status of Literature, when they state that Dylan is just a rock-star and that there are 'real' poets and novelists who were more deserving of the prize. That Dylan won does not signal, as many have histrionically claimed, the waning value of literature and legitimacy of the Nobel Prize. Rather it's a much needed reminder that good Literature doesn't have to be exclusive, esoteric and published in books. It can be popular, colloquial and yes, it can even be sung.
Literature didn't start with the printing press. Long before poems were written down and anthologised, they were part of the oral tradition. To this day people still go to recitations, slams and readings because they find that poetry comes alive when it's performed. That Dylan wrote music to accompany his poetry does not detract from its literary merit in any way; it's just another method of performance, of transmitting his work to a larger audience.
All art is subjective and people are of course entitled to their opinion, but you can't help but feel that for many, their criticism of Dylan's poetry is born from the fact that his lyrics are so accessible, so well-known and loved by millions. I saw several facetious comments on articles about Dylan's Nobel Prize along the lines of "will they give it to One Direction next year?". These people have clearly not spent more than a few fleeting minutes listening to Dylan, and their inane remarks only emphasise that their main point of contention with Dylan is that he's part of the mainstream pop culture. They doubtless would have preferred to see the award go to someone about whom they can feel superior for having read.
But it's the very universality of Dylan's literature, its enduring popularity over the last half century and its ability to move, inspire and influence generations of listeners and readers which makes him the perfect recipient of this award. Good poetry doesn't have to be convoluted and obscure. It doesn't need to be filled with allusions that only the classically educated will understand, and subsurface meanings that evade and frustrate the reader. Rather, I think poetry is often at its very best when it's clear, succinct and about experiences and emotions that can be related to by all.
Dylan's lyrics possess all those qualities. His songs are written in unpretentious simple language, but they're filled with innovation, emotion, unique perspectives and perfectly articulated turns of phrase that only a true poet could construct. No other songwriter (except Leonard Cohen), and perhaps no other poet in the past fifty years has quite such breadth in tone and subject matter. Dylan is politically charged (Hurricane) and deeply intimate (Just Like A Woman, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright); cynical (Like A Rolling Stone) and rousing (The Times They Are A Changin'); innocent (Mr Tambourine Man) and experienced (Things Have Changed); playful (Rainy Day Woman) and grave (Masters of War); social (Subterranean Homesick Blues) and folkloric (All Along The Watchtower). I could go on; prolific isn't a strong enough word to describe Dylan.
So, to celebrate Bob Dylan's much deserved Nobel Prize for Literature I've chosen some of my favourite lines from his poems below. If you're still feeling indignant about how a 'musician' could win a prestigious literary award, don't think twice, it's alright.
''I hurt easy, I just don't show it
You can hurt someone and not even know it
The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity
Gonna get lowdown, gonna fly high
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie
I'm love with a woman who don't even appeal to me.'
Things Have Changed
'You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly
Masters Of War
'I ain't a-saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right.'
Don't Think Twice It's Alright
'Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.'
All Along The Watchtower
'The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep.'
I Want You
'She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.'
Just Like A Woman
'Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see for me if she's wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin' winds.'
Girl From The North Country
'You've never learned to read or write
There's no books upon your shelf
And your pleasure knows no limits
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark.'
One More Cup of Coffee
'Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a' changin'!'
The Times They Are A' Changin'
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