(Published in the Business Standard, September 29, 2009. I wrote this yesterday, unfortunately before someone sent me the link to this piece today-but it’s nice to know we had the same idea.)
How many roads must a poet walk down before he is awarded a Nobel? The odds on the Swedish Academy announcing in a week’s time that Robert Zimmerman is the 2009 Nobel Literature laureate are low-25/1, according to Ladbroke’s.
That gives the tambourine man little leverage over this year’s best bets. Amos Oz, Philip Roth, the poet Adonis, Haruki Murakami and Thomas Pynchon make it to the top of the betting lists each year, with many saying Oz might get the nod. Given the Academy’s penchant for awarding the Nobel in literature to the obscurely erudite, Ladbroke’s and other Nobel-watchers always add in a handful of sternly literary contenders, just so that the rest of us can say “Le Clezio (or Jelineke) who?” when Nobel hour rolls around.
But Dylan’s stock, Nobel-wise, has been rising over the last decade—the current odds place him ahead of Salman Rushdie (80/1, and if they give him the wreath, can we please unban the Satanic Verses in celebration?), on par with Alice Munro (who’s already picked up the Man International Booker), and a hair ahead of Chinua Achebe, Carlos Fuentes and Mahasweta Debi (all at 50/1).
Dylan’s Nobel chances are often treated as a joke; it’s assumed that the austere guardians of the universal literary fame would never unbend far enough to award the Prize to a song-writer. Especially a successful one. And there’s the question of how Dylan, with his twin aversion to formal dress and formal speeches, would react to receiving the Nobel.
The reason why Dylan deserves the Nobel has nothing to do with his popularity, or the fact that his works are actually still quoted, discussed and in wide circulation today. Doris Lessing and Dario Fo, for instance, are classic examples of writers who earned their Nobels in terms of literary merit, but received the accolade perhaps a decade late, at a time when their best works no longer have the same impact as they once did.
The argument for Dylan would rest squarely on the quality and influence of his work over the years, and the fact that they have now become classics of modern poetry, decades after they were first composed. It’s not just that Dylan wrote great songs—he wrote songs that were deeply rooted in the history of his times, and in a musical and verbal folk tradition that goes back for decades.
The only reason he’s been kept out of contemporary compilations of world poetry is because of a kind of cultural blindness, a refusal to see that a song, however popular, however well-known, however frequently hummed, can be poetry as well. This is in many ways a bizarre barrier: poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Dylan’s fellow versifier, Adonis, have, like him, recited their verses in front of massive gatherings of fans, and have heard their lyrics chanted by thousands of voices.
Not convinced? Consider these two examples:
“Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind…”
“Now in the final act,
disaster tows our history
toward us on its face.
What is our past
but memories pierced like deserts
barricaded by what we see,
marching under clouds that move
like mules and cannon.”
The first is written by Dylan (from ‘Chimes of Freedom’), the second by Adonis. Both are poems that ask, in different ways, for justice and revolution—and you could argue, on the basis of metre and imagery, that both are equally powerful.
Try two more examples:
“I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread…”
“I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive with fiery breath,
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death.
Oh, I awoke in anger,
So alone and terrified,
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried.”
The first is W B Yeats, the second Bob Dylan—but the Irish poet and the American troubadour reach for a similar rhythm, a similar rhyme scheme and achieve the same effect of intimacy. Both are excellent poems; currently, only one of them is written by a Nobel laureate.
I know, it’s knocking on heaven’s door to ask that the Swedish Academy take Bob Dylan seriously, but you could make the case that he remains one of the most brilliant and enduring chroniclers of our times. It could happen. All it would take is a simple twist of fate.