The BS Column: A Nobel for Mr Dylan

(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.


  1. I can think of one successful songwriter who won the Nobel: our own Tagore (whose opus was Gitanjali, not Kavitanjali). Dylan's early work (up until Blonde on Blonde) was indeed lyrically powerful, but after that it became too self-conscious and the lyrical quality plummeted in my opinion (even as the musical quality improved through the 1970s). I find "Saint Augustine" quite contrived, and Dylan himself rarely (if ever) sings it. "Chimes of freedom" is not very much more popular, though I like it better. He was influential, but more musically than lyrically, I believe: his synthesis of folk traditions with rock were picked up everywhere, successfully, and dozens of people — Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, and who knows who else — have been accused of imitating him musically. It could also be that he caused increased lyrical sophistication among his contemporaries (the Beatles were clearly influenced), but I don't know if the influence went beyond "raising the bar": if he hadn't, someone else would have (maybe the Beatles themselves!). Nobody I can think of can claim to be part of the "Dylan school of songwriting". So I don't agree that his claim to a Nobel rests "squarely on the quality and influence of his work over the years" — because a significant part of that "quality and influence" was non-literary. Were/are his lyrics, taken by themselves without musical and cultural context, great enough literature to deserve a Nobel? Perhaps, but I don't think you quite make that case. By your choice of illustrative examples, in fact, you seem to be his suggesting that the case for his Nobel rests on his lesser-known work. Perhaps you can expand on that, and on the influence of that work in particular?

  2. True. But at the end of the day, what is the Nobel, more than an award given by just another committee of experts? It would be nice to see Dylan get a Nobel, but even otherwise, it doesn't matter much.

  3. Mihir, Narendra–thanks for the comments.Rahul, as usual, you've got a brilliant point. I would argue on the basis of the lyrics, actually, having gone through them recently, I was surprised at how few of them could be easily discarded–and at how many, from Hattie Carroll to Chimes of Freedom, work as poems. Dylan reminds me of Langston Hughes as a poet.Saint Augustine *is* contrived. What I found surprising about it–and several of the lesser-known Dylan works–is what I'd pointed out–he instinctively uses rhyme schemes and poetic techniques that go back at least a century, and St Augustine could have fit in very easily into Yeats' collection of lesser works, if you see what I mean.I don't have the time this week, but on the weekend, I'll try and expand on Dylan's influence; I don't agree that he didn't expand people's lyrical horizons, and would argue that he was extending an already-existing lyrical lineage in American folk songwriting, which draws on gospel, popular myth and oral tales. It's a very bardic school, and I was interested to hear some months ago that a few of the contemporary hip-hop guys, including Sage Francis, who references Dylan in a lot of his work. More on this later, and thanks for bringing this up–as always.

  4. More thoughts: Dylan was a "natural". I suppose he was the first significant modern "poet-singer" in English (there were some earlier in French, in particular Brassens, Brel, Ferre). But unlike most others in the "poet-singer" category, he was primarily a performer — his first album contained 11 covers and only 2 originals. In contrast, Leonard Cohen was a published poet long before he became a singer, indeed long before Dylan became a singer… Dylan was more widely read than he let on, and had a natural talent with words. Cohen says Dylan asked him how long it took to write "Hallelujah", and Cohen said "about 3 years", and then he asked Dylan how long it took to write "I and I", and Dylan said "about 15 minutes"; and Cohen nearly fell out of his chair. I look forward to your weekend writings!ps – here's Dylan covering Hallelujah: enjoy…

  5. IMO, Bob Dylan *did* raise the bar in contemporary poetry. Carefully building the case can be time consuming, but just off the top of my head, there are three elements that he combined quite uniquely: i) stream of conciousness ii) rich imagery (biblical or otherwise) and iii) social commentary. That said, not all of Dylan's works have literary value, and separating his musical contributions from literary ones can often be very hard. In many of his best works (like a 'Visions of Johanna' or a 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' or a 'Mr. Tambourine Man') musical and lyrical contributions are so intimately interwoven that there is no way to consider them separately in our heads. Dylan's works defintely showcase a skill with words that puts him in the same league as many a Nobel laureate. Awarding him a Nobel, however, is more about whether there is consensus on song being a *valid* literary form (like poetry, prose, fiction and drama).

  6. As you've pointed out in the piece on Herta Muller, the Nobels outside science seem to have lost their relevance.Has Dylan lost his relevance yet? Maybe we should sort that out before we consider putting the two together.And I agree with just about everything Rahul says, including the self-consciousness after "Tarantula".J.A.P.

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