The Nobel committee has awarded Bob Dylan the prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This is an interesting encapsulation of Dylan’s legacy, which includes so much more than his lyrics, which are often confounding and obtuse (or just plain bad).
Dylan wasn’t even the best lyricist of his Greenwich Village folkie cohort — that’d be Phil Ochs, whose ghost is certainly beating himself up over this news. And he wasn’t the best straight-up writer, either: Richard Farina was. But they both died young, and Dylan improbably kept going.
And going and going, enough times to reinvent his image at least ten times over. Currently the 75-year-old is on a never-ending tour, where America gets to witness the disintegration of his abilities as age takes its toll. It’s a wonderful lifelong performance, and one that he seems determined to see through to its unavoidable end.
In that sense, perhaps the poetry that the committee is alluding to is his ability to toy with the very idea of the American song tradition, the conventions that a songwriter should adhere to. Dylan has approached his work with the spirit of a poet, confronting the unassailable void that awaits us all — challenging it, romanticizing it, or, often with Dylan, laughing at it. In 1961, that wasn’t something that pop musicians did.
The legend of Dylan often begins at the bedside of Woody Guthrie, laid up near-death, as Dylan sings earnestly to him about the rights of working people and the need to end war. But almost immediately, Dylan began writing more inward-looking songs, taking on a reflexivity that could become monotonous if he wasn’t constantly changing his posture. Dylan began the second, more substantive phase of his career extremely early then, the one where he certainly was no longer what could be considered a “poet” in the sense that his early reviewers believed him to be (perhaps they’re to blame for this award then, all those starry-eyed writers for left wing rags).
With Dylan’s inward turn, he began to play with the concept of what a popular star could be — one album he’s a country star, another he’s a Christian, and yet another he’s leading a jam band. His expression has taken him down some strange roads (see: Victoria Secret, IBM) — but he’s never settled down or stopped. Even with his current incarnation, re-recording American standards with a cracked and strained voice, there’s redemption, as it’s just as much of a performance and posture as the rest of his discography.
Cynically, the committee’s decision can be read as a headline-grab by the Nobel committee after years of giving the award to little-read but extremely qualified writers. Like the peace prize given to Obama less than a year after he took office (and right before he stepped up the drone-assassination program), the award reads as the committee asking a middle aged man to come up with a good writer or notable statesman (Bob Dylan, I guess?).
Yet the committee tends to award the active and living, and truly, Dylan deserves every award he’s gotten, even if this still seems like something of a reach. There’s certainly more deserving North American songwriters for a literary prize — Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Rakim — but Dylan’s not a bad choice. He’s been listened to for decades the entire world over, a literature for the age of globalization if there ever was one. Perhaps winning such an odd award is just another part of the poetry this non-poet has created. And hey — at least they didn’t give it to Philip Roth.
This is all to say, Bob Dylan is not a poet. He has lived the life of one, though, and that’s worth a medal.