Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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?
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