The President called to give me the news
I’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize in Rhythm and Blues
– Lou Reed, ‘Down at the Arcade’ (1984).
Lou, alas, is no longer with us, but I would like to think that, notoriously hard to please though he was, he might have permitted his stony visage to crack (slightly, imperceptibly) at the thought that, at long last, it has indeed become possible to win a Nobel Prize for Rhythm and Blues – even allowing for his understandable chagrin when he realised that the honour has been bestowed upon someone else.
The official press release was a single sentence:
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.
When the news broke, I suspect that I was not alone in experiencing a small thrill of dread, anticipating the inevitable reaction to such an extraordinary decision. And there’s no question that it is an extraordinary decision. In recent years, Dylan’s name had been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize, but I don’t think anyone other than a few of his more excitable fans ever seriously thought he would win.
By way of disclosure, I should state at the outset that I grew up listening to Dylan. His albums were always on the turntable in our house. One of my earliest memories is studying the crudely painted yet strangely compelling face that adorned the cover of his much-maligned 1970 album Self Portrait. His music was often seeping through the walls as I drifted off to sleep. As a consequence, I have a particular (though I am sure not unique) connection with his work. I never had the opportunity to discover his music; it was simply part of the texture of life from the beginning.
I mention this because, even though I have inherited an appreciation for Dylan’s work, I have never felt comfortable with the Dylan-is-a-poet line. It seems like an obvious category error. Yes, poetry has its origins in song, but songwriting is a legitimate art in its own right. Dylan’s greatest lyrics do not need that kind of extraneous cultural validation; it is more than enough for him to be a songwriter of rare distinction.
Dylan has never minded playing up to the image of himself as a poet, hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, slipping references to Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot into his lyrics, and so forth. And the mantle does make a kind of sense as an acknowledgment of the remarkable formal intricacy and imagistic richness of songs like ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. If there is anyone who doubts the literary merit of his best writing, I would recommend Christopher Ricks’ virtuosic close reading of Dylan’s astonishing early masterpiece ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ in Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003).
The inevitable consternation that has been generated by the decision to award Dylan the Nobel Prize (where this is not simply scoffing by people who never liked his work in the first place) has raised the issue of whether a famous and successful musician should be receiving such an accolade, whether it should perhaps have gone to someone with a more conventionally ‘literary’ background, someone who might have benefitted from the recognition (this presumes that it is the job of the Nobel Prize to promote obscure writers, even though it has no such obligation) – resulting in the curious social media spectacle of a large number of disgruntled hipsters getting in touch with their inner Leavisite.
All of this, I think, misses the point. I would argue that the decision of the Nobel judges is not only courageous; it is also a welcome recognition of the fact that the concept of ‘literature’ is enriched by being understood in a broad and pluralistic way. And on this point, Dylan is a particularly astute choice. The judges’ one-line press release acknowledges that the significance of his work lies in the fact that it is larger than itself, that it acquires its full meaning in the context of the American songwriting tradition. He is, I think, a deserving winner of the Nobel Prize not simply because of the uncommon linguistic facility that his work displays, but because he occupies a unique position in relation to that tradition. If the idea of someone like Dylan receiving such an accolade seems strange or hard to swallow, I would suggest it can also be interpreted as a recognition not simply of his individual achievement, but as an implicit vindication of the genius of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and countless other remarkable songwriters and performers whose art has immeasurably enriched the world. It is their Nobel Prize too.