Pro/Contra: Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan
Chris Fenwick and Brian Poole
I’m going to set out two arguments against awarding the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan. The first concerns the potential political function of the prize within the literary landscape. It ultimately suggests that Dylan is a conservative choice. The second is about the scope of the category “literature,” specifically whether it should include songwriters. Here I admit that Dylan is a provocative choice, but maybe not productively so. I’m not going to assess Dylan’s artistic merit, say he shouldn’t get the prize because William Faulkner is better or, for that matter, say that he should since half the pre-war laureates aren’t read any more and/or are rubbish. Dylan is clearly a hugely talented lyricist who has exerted a great influence on culture. However, because his body of work is significantly dissimilar in kind from that of previous Nobel laureates, carrying out a comparison of quality is impossible. The issue isn’t whether it’s fair that he get the prize, rather whether it’s coherent.
But first the “political” argument. The Noble Prize is the only major literary prize reported across the world. Its statutes dictate that it should be awarded without regard to nationality. It is hence quite unique in being able to promote literary cosmopolitanism. Whilst prizes for literature in translation, such as the new International Booker, also serve this goal, they do so only within individual target languages and, by awarding recent works rather than artists’ overall output, are more about the contemporary than posterity. The Nobel, by contrast, is a canonization machine. Indeed, it promotes a kind of international canon.
What is special, even laudable, about the Nobel’s canonization function is how subversive it can be. “Herta Who?” (link) asked the Washington Post on Müller’s win in 2009, justifying its disbelief by the fact that prominent list-maker and bardolater Harold Bloom also hadn’t heard of her. The controversial 2004 award to Elfriede Jelinek brought her dense, violent writing to a much wider audience and last year’s recipient, Svetlana Alexievich, would have been an equally surprising choice had she not topped the betting odds on account of a probable leak (link). Even though literature in English dominates the Nobel canon (27 laureates, now including Dylan, followed by 16 who wrote in French), the US breathes an immense collective sigh eastwards each year Phillip Roth fails to win. Even though literature in translation comprises only about three percent of that published in English (link), as opposed to 27% in French or even 40% in Turkish, we still cling to the notion that Anglophone lit needs the prize to reinforce its superstars’ reputations. Yet in the light of the slim reception of translations into English, doesn’t the resent at Nobels going to “minor” writers show up the Anglophone world for what it is: a monoglot echo-chamber? If the prize can boost the popularity of literature in translation and shake up incipient canons by revealing their linguistic bias, surely it is doing more for literary culture than by furnishing Roth or DeLillo with a flashy tombstone? In this sense, Dylan is just as conservative a choice as any of the US colossi. Giving him the prize changes nothing. It’s a waste of an opportunity to shake up linguistic and cultural provincialism.
So much for the political argument. Now things get messy. My second argument is that Bob Dylan’s work, distinguished as it may be, does not fall within the scope of “literature.” This is not an argument about quality – that the work is bad or trivial – rather one of kind – namely, that Dylan’s lyrics, dependent as they are on the musical form he gives them, just cannot be judged in the same way as we judge literature. The lyrics themselves simply read like bad poetry.
This argument is harder to make because there is, in fact, quite a good case that Dylan falls within the literary tradition. Gordon Ball, who since 1996 has nominated Dylan for the Nobel more than a dozen times, makes an argument like this in the journal Oral Tradition (link). The argument is that many works quite central to the literary tradition – Sappho, Homer, the troubadours – were to be performed with musical accompaniment. To exclude Dylan because he sings his texts thus involves repressing part of the tradition and ignoring the connection between music and poetry that many major poets, such as Ezra Pound, have repeatedly emphasized. If something like what Dylan does used to be considered literature, why can’t we consider it literature today?
My response to this argument is twofold. Firstly, can we not reasonably claim that the times they are a-changin’, the traditions of poetry and folk song have diverged, and it’s hence rather confusing – even backwards-looking – to bring the categories back together? But secondly, and more importantly, is what Dylan does actually that similar to the songs of the troubadours?
Ball cites Pound pointing towards the inextricable relationship of music and poetry within the tradition: “both in Greece and in Provence the poetry attained its highest rhythmic and metrical brilliance at times when the arts of verse and music were most closely knit together, when each thing done by the poet had some definite musical urge or necessity bound up within it.” However, the ancient and medieval poetry that was intended to be set to music (how exactly we don’t know) is nonetheless effective metrically independent of its musical setting. That isn’t the case with Dylan’s lyrics. All these texts can be read as pure verbal art, even if that is not how they were conceived. What influence they have had on the subsequent tradition is not dependent on an “authentic” reception (now lost), for in their verbal artistry they transcend the necessity of such a reception.
Indeed, the intricate forms developed by the troubadours, such as the sestina, with its recursively permuted endings, seem as dependent on a process of textual composition as they are on musical inspiration. Look at the regularity of form in Arnaut Daniel’s ‘Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra’ (link) , considered the very first sestina (a modern performance can be found here). This text has a very clear prosodic design, independent of however it was to be performed. Or, to take a text in English, consider one of Shakespeare’s songs, from As You Like It (link), most famous in the setting by Thomas Morely (link). The Shakespeare text was clearly composed to be set to music and is itself full of “musical” effects (the shifting line lengths and varying double/triple metre). Yet, like the sestina of il miglior fabbro, it has a design that is prosodically compelling independent of a musical setting. This is also true of the other ‘canonical’ poet-singers. If music inspired their metre (as Pound argues), that metre did not depend on it. We can read these texts as poetry without feeling that something is missing.
The same cannot be said of Dylan. Indeed, his music seems to work against the possibility of his texts’ being prosodically effective in isolation. Take ‘Visions of Johanna,’ widely considered one of his best lyrics: (link)
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes everything’s been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.
Leaving aside some questionable formulations (“cape of the stage”?), the lyrics simply allow no rhythmic sense to emerge. The rhymes hang like lead weights on lines of prose. At the level of prosodic design, this stuff isn’t far from a certain railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay. (link)
Does this mean that the troubadours’ tradition is dead? That songs can never also be poetry? Of course not. A better example of the troubadour tradition would be the chanson française. Here, you can find a real anality in the production of prosodically complex texts that could stand up as poetry in their own right. Take a look at Georges Brassens’s ‘Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète.’ The song replicates the verse form of Paul Valéry’s famous poem ‘Le cimitière marin’ . Is it as good as Valéry’s poem? No. Is Brassens’s musical œuvre as significant as Dylan’s? I suppose that depends on your generation and place of birth. But can we say that Brassens produced a musical poem that is also just a poem? Like the troubadours? Absolutely. Indeed, this “humble troubadour” is arguably more interesting that his forefathers, who can come across as trafficking in a limited stock of clichés.
Ultimately, then, we face a question of medium, and whether Dylan’s really is literary. The Nobel Prize statutes (link) offer a relatively broad definition of literature: “not only belles-lettres but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value.” Now, without their musical form, it is impossible to make the case for Dylan’s lyrics. But is it coherent to say that a text possesses literary value because of its musical form? The Nobel stipulation seems to allow for writers of history, philosophy and journalism (so, Churchill, Russell and Alexievich) – texts whose genre is not traditionally literary, but whose form and style, as written texts, arguably bring them within the scope of the literary.
Now, we can detect many affinities between Dylan’s lyrics and poetry. We can bring the same kind of critical analysis to bear on them as we do upon literature (vide prac-crit aficionado Christopher Ricks and Dylan’s Visions of Sin). But we can also bring a lot of those tools to bear on, say, cinema in the analysis of narrative, symbol or even the words the characters speak. Does Michael Haneke deserve the Nobel Prize? Surely not for his scripts alone. But his films, the way he makes them, attain an artistic value equal to that of significant literary works. And if one wants to make the “tradition” argument, one need only gesture towards the origins of cinema in drama. What I mean to ask, then, is: is affinity enough? Not only does the Dylan award raise the spectre of a crumpled Morrissey ascending the Stockholm stage in 2036, it also opens the door to other quasi-literary media such as cinema, which – like music – have long since developed their own traditions (and prizes). Is this a useful provocation?
Having said this, I’m nonetheless inclined to think we all have the wrong end of the stick. The Nobel is the great, international literary prize, gains all the attention, is regarded as a gateway into the canon, etc. etc. The Swedish Academy knows all of this. And the Swedish Academy has a sense of humour. (“Never underestimate the Swedish wit,” as Gore Vidal said of the Peace Prize going to Henry Kissinger.) Are the provocative prizes really political decisions? Or are they merely mischief – an extended homage to Dario Fo? Maybe admitting Dylan to the Nobel Hall of Fame is the price we pay for having Alexeivich there.
In this regard, Dylan occupies an unusual position within the prize’s recent history. He is both a provocative and a conservative choice. Yet aren’t the conservative choices a kind of necessity? If the prize is seen a self-indulgent free-for-all where a bunch of Swedes repeatedly checks the US literary establishment for being too provincial then it will lose its credibility. The reason the provocative choices are meaningful is because they imply an equivalence between relatively unknown writers and the heavyweight titans of yore. They also imply that these people are just as worthy of recognition as favourites like Phillip Roth. However, if the prize completely ignored well-established writers, it would be seen as a sideshow. Pragmatically, they have to award it now and again to an establishment figure as a tedious “lifetime achievement award” – simply to keep everyone interested in the genuinely interesting choices. In the case of Dylan, they managed to have their cake and eat it.
I’m afraid I’m not competent enough on the subject of Bob Dylan to write well on him. The only thing that amazes m
e is the debate over whether his work merits consideration as “verbal art.” Here, all the theoretical arguments against awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize seem to me wilfully obtuse, like socks with a miniskirt. The debate (so the theory) is not over questions of quality, but rather over the purported essence of Dylan’s œuvre vis-à-vis literature. The naysayers swiftly manoeuver themselves into a historically untenable corner when they suggest that all poetry, ancient and modern, can be distilled into a spirit we may imbibe without music. In your words: “The ancient and medieval poetry that was intended to be set to music (how exactly we don’t know) is nonetheless effective metrically independent of its musical setting. That isn’t the case with Dylan’s lyrics.” The two assumptions here just don’t wash. First of all, you might want to ask ancient and medieval audiences whether they felt their poetry was “effective metrically independent of its musical setting.” Ancients couldn’t read silently; could they really imagine poetry without its sound?
During a futile decade as a classicist, I struggled through passages in Greek tragedies where the metre suddenly changes; the professor (in one case, the eminent Karl Christ in Marburg) spends 30 minutes explaining the scansion of just six lines, noting that this particular metre occurs perhaps twice elsewhere in Greek drama, though it must have been common in the hundreds of tragedies we no longer possess; thereafter the students, with their deer-in-the-headlight eyes, attempt to translate the passage, made all the more difficult because the author has drifted into Doric, the language of choral lyric with its brain-fucking athematic verbs. Is this like the bard’s “ain’t” in an age of “isn’t”? I have no idea. What classicists do know is that such literature does not work at all for us (save in bonehead translation). We don’t have the sheet music. And the more I learned about the Greek language, the less I enjoyed such passages. Our contemporary appreciation of ancient literature accepts silently the translator’s aporia: All classicists begin by converting all ancient poetry into prose. This illusion of pure verbal content is the source of many wilful misconceptions, among them your suggestion that Sappho is “pure verbal art.” Ann Carson’s recent translation of the Sapphic canon (Vintage, 2002) begins thus:
Sappho was a musician. Her poetry is lyric, that is, composed to be sung to the lyre. She addresses her lyre in one of her poems (fr. 118) and frequently mentions music, songs and singing. Ancient vase painters depict her with her instrument. Later writers ascribe to her three musical inventions: that of the plectron, an instrument for picking the lyre (Suda); that of the pektis, a particular kind of lyre (Athenaios Deipnosophistai 14.635b); and the mixolydian mode, an emotional mode also used by tragic poets, who learned it from Sappho (Aristoxenos cited by Plutarch On Music 16.113c). All Sappho’s music is lost.
Your own argument progresses from Sappho (with the questionable reliability of Google’s latest driverless car) by barrelling through the Middle Ages and slighting the troubadours en route, largely because that suits your purposes. But slighting the troubadours for cliché is evidence that you’ve found it convenient to shift your argument from one of poetry’s essence to the question of quality, the better to diss the association of music and lyric, while conveniently sidestepping a mere half a millennia of musical contributions to the poetic arts, during which the troubadours pioneered the canso, the sestina, and the sonnet. Can you really imagine a world of Petrarch and Dante and Chaucer without the troubadours? Ezra Pound could not. And I sincerely do not understand what all this is in aid of. Much of classical literature would wane into cliché before our eyes if we had more of it. The (Christian) troubadours fared better with the scribes.
Of course there’s also a counter-factual side to your argument. When I arrived in Germany, my first two friends here had the “Lyrics” of Bob Dylan in several editions on their bookshelves, some volumes complete with facing translations penned by some of Germany’s greatest bards. On this pedestrian level, where academic jargon has less room to do its self-preoccupied clowning, I wonder if you can name another lyricist who has sold more printed copies of his texts and has had more influence on the genre he works in than Bob Dylan. I can’t.
You’re not alone in suggesting that Dylan’s lyrics (with music) are not poetry per se. The American poet Matthew Zapruder—a friend of mine from our days in Moscow during the late 80s—recently posted: “Ok, just one more thing. Songwriting is not poetry, which is totally fine. But songwriting is literature.” Interestingly, Matthew Zapruder, like me, is a guitarist and sometime songwriter. (Full disclosure: I still have the Ovation he sold me in 1989 at MGU.) Like you, Chris, Matthew was a musician before he took to fulltime writing. What makes me eminently qualified to comment on Dylan the musician, however, is that I’m a lousy guitarist. And I can play everything Dylan wrote with ease. So here’s my take on whether Dylan was such a great musician that his lyrics can’t survive without him crooning them: There’s a great online video of James Taylor talking about his songs. Taylor is asked why he composes so much in the key of D and A. He replies that he never writes music in C. Never. Well, that’s about 85% of the Dylan canon. Almost all of his songs are in C or G—one reason why he’s chronically addicted to the capo when he does change key. The repetition of chords and chord progressions makes him the first musical choice for those who cannot play the guitar and don’t read music. (Almost all the chords he uses can be represented by three dots on six strings between two to three frets.) In addition, Dylan has only two different styles of (rather serviceable) fingerpicking, and nothing above campfire complexity when it comes to strumming. James Taylor, by contrast, never writes in C because, on the guitar, the chord progressions come too easily, and they all smack of cliché. On his very first album, Taylor used several novel chord progressions that had everyone scratching their heads with wonder: so unlike country music. His fingerpicking style is also continuously innovative and melodically complex, with all the frills of slides and slap-downs and pull-offs guitarists use to make us think they have more fingers than they do. All hard to learn, and harder to master.
Honestly, what is all this nonsense about Dylan the great musician? He’s not. Nor he is a great singer. No vibrato. No range. And a tendency to sing around a note instead of hitting it.
So what made Dylan famous? And why is it literature?
Can I name the elephant in the room?
Bob Dylan it the 20th century’s greatest master of the ballad. The bard’s storytelling form.
These days, of course, legions of self-alienated academic poets have, in their anaemic isolation from the meat and drink of popular forms, virtually disowned the genre. And so they fail to recognise the most popular form of 19th century poetry when they hear it. Probably because they read it. (The ballad was meant to be heard, not read, even when it wasn’t sung.)
And if I may be allowed to anticipate dissent: “But Wordsworth didn’t sing!”
Go to Ireland, lad, and drink with your ears! The form is alive and well in every pub by midnight, and it still outranks anything Seamus Heaney ever wrote. You can’t imagine Ireland in 1916 (much less its aftermath) without the Irish ballad. Or “Black Lives Matter” without rap. And you can’t imagine the 1960s without Bob Dylan.
Chris Fenwick is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the Freie Universität Berlin. He maintains a blog at http://www.lexipenia.wordpress.com/
Brian Poole is a writer, translator and former lecturer in Comparative Literature at the Freie Universität Berlin.