Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

And the Nobel goes to … Zimmerman?


Are you as staggered as I am that they gave the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan?

On the one hand, yes, his lyrics are often actual writing as opposed to most rock and pop lyrics, which either follow pretty standard formulas or drift into drug-induced imagery that doesn’t make a lot of sense when read as poetry. But his lyrics are essential to his songs too. He was never the type to do instrumentals.

So they rationalize the award by saying he’s “bardic.” He’s like Homer and Sappho. But Homer and Sappho had to sing their tales because there was no other way to disseminate them. No field recorders like John and Alan Lomax had when they recorded Lead Belly. It was all oral tradition back in the Bronze Age, with stories sung not just by Homer and Sappho but by carriers who passed the word from village to village.

Dylan came along at a time when mass audiences could hear one performance the studio recording. And his poetry reached more ears than all the generations who ever read Yeats, or Pound, or Eliot combined.

This reach of his made him popular, but the ironic thing about literature is that it sometimes, or always, has a hard time finding the wide audience it ought to have. We usually haven’t heard of the laureate if he or she comes from another country, or if there hasn’t been a movie made of one of the books. In fact, one former Nobel winner, Italy’s Dario Fo, just died last week at the age of 90, with little or no mention in mass media. The list of winners from the past twenty years is full of names that are unfamiliar and often exotic (unless you’re a scholar), meaning that fame and fortune weren’t likely their motivations. Creating and, usually, teaching were what pushed them.

Maybe the Nobel Committee has been getting nervous about the objective unpopularity of literature.

If Bob Dylan is a poet of Nobel-level significance, then his work should have influenced poetry. Literature pushes literature forward. Did his catalogue have an influence on literary poets who came after him? Is there a Dylan school of poetry, like the Beat school or the Imagists? (Actually you could say he’s something of a Beat Imagist songwriter, when you think about it.) Or did his work influence mainly other songwriters and musicians? I’d say the latter.

And yet, even though I’m rankling a little bit at this, I can see the benefit of expanding the definition of literature. As the culture changes along with the tools of creation, it’s possible that novels, plays, and poems will give way or be incorporated into art forms that we can’t predict yet. Songwriting as literature has been sitting on the table for some time, but there haven’t been many candidates for the Nobel who wouldn’t, till now, seem laughable. The fact that Dylan’s Nobel isn’t laughable is a sign that the world might be ready for a paradigm shift.

But if we’re going to open up the Nobel to literary songwriters, then Paul Simon might be up for one next year, or Elvis Costello, or Thom Yorke, or Joni Mitchell, or David Byrne, or St. Vincent, or Leonard Cohen, for heaven’s sake. You can name quite a few who are probably in Dylan’s league as verse-makers, but what are you going to about all the novelists, playwrights, and poets who’ve dedicated their lives to actual literature? If it turns out that there are enough popular musical artists to unlaughably qualify, then why would the committee ever again select a stuffy old writer of literary fiction nobody’s ever heard of?

Kanye? Better get yourself measured for a tux and learn a little Swedish …

[Image via.]

9 comments on “And the Nobel goes to … Zimmerman?

  1. pinklightsabre
    October 19, 2016

    That photo is really odd, but it’s still Dylan, unmistakably. I really like the thoughts you stir in this, even being such a fan of his. You could argue he brought the idea of conventional literature (the way it was always thought) to song writing, perhaps the one who really broke into that space, was the most visible and achieved the most commercial success – and of course the adage about his singing voice vs. his words. You know, I was 16 in ’86 and used Positively 4th Street as an example of a poem to analyze in my English writing class. It was more interesting and accessible to me at the time than other poetry I had available; there’s something to that maybe. I tried to defend and promote Jim Morrison as a poet when I got to college but looking back, that doesn’t pass muster. And I tried to interest my 11-year-old in poetry by way of that video Subterranean Homesick Blues, but she dismissed it as looking too old. That was ’66, wasn’t it? God bless Bob Dylan.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 19, 2016

      I bet a lot of young poets tried to use their favorite lyrics in English class. I know I did! I remember doing a slide show to “A Day in the Life” one time and a literary analysis of “Quadrophenia” another. The teachers just barely tolerated it …

      One thing I do appreciate about Dylan is that he obviously didn’t live his life and produce his work hoping to win awards. He made the songs, put ’em out there, and moved on.

      • pinklightsabre
        October 19, 2016

        I hear you on that with Dylan. Amen to that, a real inspiration.

  2. S.K. Nicholls
    October 19, 2016

    Dylanesque (and I’m not speaking of the studio album by Bryan Ferry) is a neologism I’ve used and heard by others, so, yes, I would say he did influence both poetry and lyrics, perhaps other writing in a huge way.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 19, 2016

      I don’t know. You could say Stephen King’s books are “cinematic,” but that doesn’t mean he should get an Oscar!

      • S.K. Nicholls
        October 19, 2016

        I personally think Stephen King’s contribution to cinema have earned him an Oscar.

  3. 1WriteWay
    October 28, 2016

    Am I the only one who never cared much for Dylan? I think the Nobel committee are just trying to make themselves relevant. Remember when the Peace Prize was given to Obama? With all due respect to the president, that was a head-scratcher. He hadn’t even been president for a whole year …

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 28, 2016

      It does smell of quiet desperation, doesn’t it. Same with Obama. I read somewhere last week that the Nobel committee hates American literature, so this is something of an “up yours” thing too. The best “writer” we have is a chain-smoking minstrel who sings like a duck!

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This entry was posted on October 19, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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