Bob Dylan, poet-singer, Nobel laureate

Bob Dylan, poet-singer, Nobel laureate

It begins with the Swedish Academy’s announcement of the award to Dylan. Everyone is surprised, none more than Dylan himself. He goes into hiding, not taking any calls or responding to messages. Nor does he communicate anything to the wider world. He remains totally incommunicado for days on end. The Academicians break into a sweat: would he ‘do a Sartre’, ie refuse the prize like the French philosopher-writer?

The comedy is artificially dragged out in the third act as the international chorus of commentators wonders aloud whether Dylan will deliver the Nobel lecture. Apparently it has to be delivered within six months of the award, or else the prize money will be forfeited. I don’t know when this stipulation was introduced. It couldn’t have been there in 1969, when Samuel Beckett won the prize. Like Dylan he had his acceptance speech read out, by his publisher; but he did not deliver any Nobel lecture. And yet, it is common knowledge that he shared the prize money with his indigent writer friends.
Dylan made an audio recording of his Nobel lecture and sent it to the Academy. It was put up on the Academy’s website along with a transcript. It is clear from Dylan’s delivery that the lecture was read out. It is also clear that he did not send the text to the Academy, and that the transcript was made by someone hired by the Academy who bungled the job. One can be sure of this because of discrepancies between the recorded lecture and the transcript. The lecture itself is a good performance, with the speaker’s sincerity and commitment to his art quite palpable in the raspy grain of his voice. The critical appreciation of his three chosen texts, however, is sophomoric. But that has no bearing on the question whether Dylan’s lyrics qualify as poetry of high enough merit to deserve the Nobel.
Controversy is nothing new to the Nobel, particularly in two categories, Peace and Literature. Many look upon the Peace Prize as a bit of a joke; sometimes as a bad joke. In the case of Literature, a common complaint is that many of the unquestionably great modern writers have been passed over, while a number of admittedly lesser writers have been given the prize. But there was a new angle to the controversy over Dylan. It was argued by some that giving the prize to him was what philosophers call a category mistake. Dylan was a great singer, they admitted, but he was not a poet; his lyrics had value when sung, but they did not fall in the category of great poetry. Extending the argument, it was claimed that if the lyrics were judged by the standards of great poetry they would be found sadly wanting. The latter claim can be settled, one way or the other, only through a close reading of Dylan’s poetry.
The basic point about categories is clearly bogus. There are songs and songs; lyrics and lyrics. Not all songs are memorable, and not all lyrics are poetry; but the history of poetry is full of lyrics that were sung before they became texts encountered mainly in the study or classroom: all the medieval ballads, the songs of Provencal troubadours, the hundreds of German lieder, the Vaishnava lyrics of Vidyapati and Chandidas and scores of others, all other Bhakti lyrics —by Kabir, Mira Bai, and the numerous South Indian devotees of Shiva and Vishnu, Rumi, the Sufi ghazals, the songs of Tagore, which got him the Nobel; one could go on and on. If we subsume singing under the broader term performance, we will see that virtually the whole of ancient literature and much of what emerged later comes under its purview: Homer, the Indian epics, all the plays in the world. Besides, as even a smattering of modern literary and cultural theory will bring home to one, literature is a relatively new concept; and any kind of writing can end up becoming literature. To take a recent example, the 2015 Nobel laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, was a journalist by profession, but her haunting non-fictional accounts of the Chernobyl disaster and the collapse of the Soviet Union are haunting literary texts, as powerful in their impact as any contemporary novel. The Nobel laureates in literature include a number of historians and philosophers too; they didn’t think of themselves as producers of literature to start with, but the literary value of their writings is undeniable.
In the same way, Dylan’s lyrics, abstracted from the context of performance, can be read as powerful poems. This sets him apart from many celebrated singers in the modes Dylan himself used, Country and Rock. Let’s take one he admired immensely: Buddy Holly, to whom he pays a generous tribute in his Nobel lecture. One look at Holly’s lyrics and it becomes clear that he isn’t much of a poet. What Dylan warmed to in Holly wasn’t in the lyrics, it was in Holly’s musical style. There’s more poetic meat, seasoned in the vitriol of social protest, in two other heroes of the young Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger: both their musical manner and poetic matter appealed to Dylan. But from the start Dylan surpassed their simple statements of criticism and protest in his literary allusiveness and modernist complexity. Both the musical and literary qualities of Dylan have been acknowledged by critics. And so he has won 11 Grammy Awards, one Golden Globe and an Academy Award as a tribute to his singing skills; but he has also received a ‘special citation’ from the Pulitzer jury for 2008 ‘for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power’. This precisely anticipates the Nobel Committee’s citation commending him ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’
Because of Dylan’s poetic density those who know him only through listening to him singing must miss out a lot, for poetry can be understood in all its depth only when it is read on the page, mulled over, and carefully analysed. Many poets and critics have been reading Dylan’s lyrics as poems from the very beginning. My first encounter with Dylan the poet was in an anthology, Poets of Today: A New American Anthology (1964), edited by the American poet (and Communist activist), Walter Lowenfels. I found a 1966 edition of the book published by the Berlin house Seven Seas books in a bookstore in Dhaka. It contained A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall. I had heard the song many times, but my listener’s sensibility was split between melody and rhythm and accompanying music on the one hand, and the words on the other. The words danced through my mind, as it were. Reading them in cold print was a totally different experience. They forced me to linger, to ponder their significance, their resonances.
The opening lines, ‘Where have you been my blue eyed son? / Where have you been my darlin’ young one?’, alert the reader to the deep historical roots of the composition, reminding one of the popular Anglo-Scottish Border ballad, Lord Randal. Dylan varies his variations on these lines throughout the song, and sings the refrain about the hard rain four times, each time with the same emphatic force. Sir Christopher Ricks in his magisterial study, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003) provides the refrain with a Shakespearian lineage, quoting four lines from the Fool’s concluding song in Twelfth Night:

‘But when I came to man’s estate’
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.’

I think we can also invoke the apocalyptic ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’ of King Lear; and, bridging the centuries till we come to our troubled time, the rain that turned Somme and Ancre into a sea of mud, or the rain of nuclear fall-out that we have been dreading for decades. The song has been mistakenly linked to the Cuban missile crisis which it antedates by a few weeks. The overarching nihilistic vision (‘Where black is the colour, where none is the number’), and the images of mayhem ( ‘guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children’; ‘a young woman whose body was burning’), torture (‘ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken’) and ecological disaster (‘the pellets of poison are flooding their waters’) in the song continue to haunt us, for there’s no hint of improvement in the situation; indeed, things are much worse.
Dylan’s oeuvre is both copious and varied. The former British poet laureate, Andrew Motion, in choosing illustrative examples of great poetry among Dylan’s lyrics identifies five categories: The great protestations (Blowin’ in the Wind), the great love-murmurs (Love Minus Zero) and love-twists (Tangled Up in Blue), the great surrealist masterpieces of the Blonde on Blonde era (Visions of Johanna): all these contain the qualities we look for in poetry that matters. Concentration of language, formal expertise of one kind or another, and a clever balancing of articulacy and mystery. The same goes for his great ballads. Motion provides a crisp critical resume of his favourite among the latter, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’:
‘Here Dylan gives his account of the murder committed by William Zanzinger, the criminally light sentence he received, and of “high office relations in the politics of Maryland”, in four headlong and largely unpunctuated verses. Everything about them is alert to the literary tradition in which they work, but everything stretches and extends that tradition, walking affine line between lyricd and narrative to catch the essence of both, and tumbling through rage into sorrow at its conclusion, without diminishing either:

‘Oh you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all
fears / Bury the rag deep in your face / For now’s
the time for your tears.’

A personal favourite of mine is Desolation Row, a long and allusive evocation of anomie in the modern city in freewheeling lightly punctuated lines. The opening stanza is filled with references to real events in Dylan’s father’s lifetime:

Bob Dylan and The Band touring in Chicago, 1974 (Left to right: Rick Danko (bass), Robbie Robertson (guitar), Bob Dylan (guitar), Levon Helm(drums), 1974 /
By Jim Summaria (Contact us/Photo submission) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The serio-comic drama over Bob Dylan’s Nobel ended with a whimper when he sent a recorded lecture to the Swedish Academy, thus fulfilling the final requirement for the transfer of the prize money to the laureate. The academicians heaved a huge sigh of relief, and the cultural world went back to its rather staid, everyday rhythms. Since human memory is abysmally short, let us briefly recapitulate the highlights of the drama.
It begins with the Swedish Academy’s announcement of the award to Dylan. Everyone is surprised, none more than Dylan himself. He goes into hiding, not taking any calls or responding to messages. Nor does he communicate anything to the wider world. He remains totally incommunicado for days on end. The Academicians break into a sweat: would he ‘do a Sartre’, ie refuse the prize like the French philosopher-writer?
In the meantime a highbrow debate ensues, calling the Academy’s choice of laureate into question. Motion: Dylan does not deserve the Nobel for literature. A diverse lot, and not just intellectuals, line up, for and against. The Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh (ULAB) organises a public debate on the motion, with live steaming on YouTube. It’s on a Friday morning, when people like to lounge at home. But the auditorium is packed, and there are more people downstairs sitting before giant monitors. Appropriately enough, the Swedish ambassador chairs the event, and in the end puts the motion to a vote. It’s a close call but the Academy is vindicated. The debate is followed by a jam session in which Dylan songs are performed by the Vice Chancellor, a Rock singer of repute, and his friends.
By now people who have never read any Nobel Prize winning author, or, for that matter, listened to any Dylan song, sense that a rollicking tamasha is on, and join in the argy-bargy, and come up with rum comments: ‘The Bangla Academy should nominate our Bauls,’ says one. ‘If only Lalon Shah were alive,’ sighs another.
In the second act of the drama Dylan breaks silence and conveys his acceptance of the award to the Swedish Academy. He writes an acceptance speech but doesn’t go to the grand ceremonial banquet to read it out. It is read out instead by the American ambassador to Sweden; her photograph is consequently seen by everyone following the drama. It’s not a bad speech, though I wish he hadn’t mentioned Pearl S Buck as one of the ‘giants of literature’ who had won the prize. He makes the interesting point that those who write for performance, among them Shakespeare and Dylan himself, think about their craft differently from those who write for readers.

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlour is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight

  • From Desolation Row

So far it sounds rather like the ballads on protest themes. But in the remaining nine stanzas, a motley crew of personages, real, fictional, legendary, appear in ambiguous roles that defy neat interpretation: Cinderella, Abel and Cain, Eliot and Pound, Einstein, the hunchback of Notre Dame, and quite a few more. Philip Larkin picked up the album containing the song ‘and found myself well rewarded…There is a marathon Desolation Row which has an enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words.’ Half-baked isn’t a surprising epithet, coming from Larkin who swerved away from Eliotesque modernism to fashion a more accessible poetic mode. Desolation Row requires careful unpacking, which Larkin wasn’t prepared to undertake.
One poet who was always enthusiastic about Dylan was Allen Ginsberg. He described Dylan’s songs as ‘the culmination of Poetry-music as dreamt of in the ’50s and early ’60s’. Ginsberg himself would chant and sing many of his poems, so there is a direct kinship tie linking them to Dylan’s songs. They are also linked by their poetic content. Dylan is very much a part of the Beat tradition, and was directly inspired by Beat poetry. I have always felt that passing over Ginsberg has been one of the lamentable lapses of the Swedish Academy. I see the award of the prize to Dylan as partial recompense for the omission.
Many liberals have been dismayed by Dylan’s sudden conversion to Christianity. There is no reason for alarm, however. His religion is very much a personal matter, a spiritual adventure that agnostics and atheists can respond to in the same way they respond to the later Eliot or Auden, or for that matter Herbert or Vaughan.
One hopes that the award of the Nobel will bring about a change in the way Dylan is received by his admirers. So far they have been content to listen to him. Now they will read him. Already, all the paraphernalia of the scholarly apparatus have been brought to bear on Dylan. Sir Christopher Ricks, generally acknowledged the finest close reader of poetry today, and a celebrated textual editor – he has edited the works of Tennyson and T S Eliot – is responsible for putting together the Collected Lyrics of Dylan in two hefty volumes. Dylan will no doubt become a regular feature in courses on contemporary poetry.

Kaiser Haq was born in Dhaka and educated at the universities of Dhaka (MA) and Warwick (PhD). Haq is a poet, essayist, translator and a veteran of the Bangladesh independence war. He retired from Dhaka University as professor of English after forty-one years of teaching; and is currently professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh (ULAB). He has received the Bangla Academy Prize for Translation, and the 2017 Sherwin W Howard Award for Poetry from Weber—the Contemporary West. His books include eight poetry collections, the most recent being Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems (UPL), and Pariah and Other Poems (Bengal Lights Books), five translated volumes, including Quartet (Penguin India), The Wonders of Vilayet (Chronicle books), The Woman Who Flew (Penguin India); and two edited poetry anthologies. His version of the Manasa legends, The Triumph of the Snake Goddess, has appeared from Harvard University Press.

December 2017

It begins with the Swedish Academy’s announcement of the award to Dylan. Everyone is surprised, none more than Dylan himself. He goes into hiding, not taking any calls or responding to messages. Nor does he communicate anything to the wider world. He remains totally incommunicado for days on end. The Academicians break into a sweat:…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *