• Rock and Literature: On Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

    I’ve just returned from a wonderful small conference at the National Humanities Center called “Novel Sounds.” At its most specific, conversation focused on the role played by rock ‘n’ roll in contemporary American fiction; more broadly, presentations engaged with the fruitful — if sometimes stealthy, but in any event mutual — give-and-take between writing and contemporary popular music.

    I presented on the first panel, “Rock and Literature I,” and talked mostly about a current project of mine, a history of the first two decades of American rock writing. But I couldn’t resist starting by making reference to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, announced just the day before the conference opened. Rock and Literature: Amirite? It seemed somehow both too obvious to say and too obvious not to say. And so, of course, I simultaneously said it and disavowed it.

    NPR popular music critic Ann Powers was the last speaker of the conference; she spent her time describing a day in the life of a rock journalist under the unforgiving conditions imposed by the current media landscape and the tyranny of the “hot take.” For her somewhat-more-frenetic-than-usual case study, she described in some detail the day she’d left for the conference — Thursday, the day of the Nobel announcement. I’d just had my own first taste of that tyranny and frenzy: as editor of the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, which is included in the Swedish Academy’s official bibliography for Dylan’s citation, I awoke on the West coast Thursday morning both to the news of Dylan’s award, and to a half-dozen requests for newspaper, magazine, radio, and television interviews (as well as for a post on the Cambridge University Press blog — and a contract for the simplified Chinese-language edition of the Companion). For me it was my 15 minutes of fame, loitering in Dylan’s shadow: but this is Ann’s life.

    By Ann’s account, the “Dylan backlash” had begun within six hours of the Nobel Prize announcement. And by “backlash,” she didn’t mean snarky complaints that Dylan didn’t deserve the prize: no, those were voiced from the very start. Rather, in less time than would be required to write even the briefest thoughtful response to the news, habitués of social media had already started to whine that they were tired of stories about Dylan’s Nobel. We reached peak Dylan before lunchtime.

    British folk-rock pioneer Richard Thompson performed the first night of the conference, and participated in a roundtable the next morning with music writer and cultural critic Greil Marcus and novelist (and my friend and colleague) Jonathan Lethem — a panel convened at the very un-rock ‘n’ roll hour of 9:30am on Saturday. (Thompson was a good sport.) At the Friday night show he played one of my favorite songs, “I Feel So Good,” from his strongest solo album, Rumor and Sigh. In it, Thompson’s protagonist sings in an urgent and impatient voice, “I’m old enough to sin but I’m too young to vote….” Something of that already/not-yet paradox haunted me as I returned to my hotel room and thought about what one might write about Dylan’s award at a moment when the hot takes had devolved into me-too-ism, but the well-researched think piece was a distant prospect, a luxury few could afford. Dylan has been creating great vernacular American “literature” (if we grant, for a moment, that designation) for more than half a century; but ars longa, vita brevis. To denizens of the blogosphere, it seems, it was time to get back to Trump.

    Before heading to the airport and the conference on Thursday, I was interviewed for an NPR show, “To the Point,” produced by Santa Monica affiliate KCRW. While waiting to go on the air I was sitting at my desk, looking at a framed poem that hangs on the wall by my door. Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the Nobel in 1995; by chance his friend and fellow Ulster poet Paul Muldoon was visiting the university where I then taught when the award was announced. Paul was asked for a comment by The Independent (London) — a “hot take,” if you will — and he phoned me from his hotel that evening to ask whether I might pick him up early the next morning and bring him to my office so that he could write. His poem celebrating the occasion, composed on my computer, is a sonnet called “A Telegram for Seamus Heaney”; I had the foresight to print out two copies and have him sign one.

    Seeing Paul’s poem on the wall provided some helpful context. Few would dispute that Heaney is the most important Irish poet since W. B. Yeats; his Nobel was given in recognition of that body of work. And yet Heaney’s poetry hasn’t had a fraction of the influence that Dylan’s songwriting has. And not just worldwide, or in the English-speaking world: even in Ireland, Dylan is a more important and influential writer (never mind “poet” or “litterateur”) than Heaney. Indeed, Muldoon’s was the hot take those press outlets should have been seeking out last Thursday: founder of a rock band, the Princeton-based Wayside Shrines, I suspect that Paul (66/1 odds in the Nobel pool at Ladbrokes) would also have affirmed the justice of Dylan’s prize, albeit without resorting to captious comparisons with his late friend Heaney.

    My impulse to compare Dylan’s work to that of a capital-P Poet, however, does tell us something: that cultural recognition in the current climate feels like a zero-sum game. During the KCRW interview I was in conversation both with host Warren Olney and LA Times books editor Carolyn Kellogg. (I had already done an interview with a reporter at the Times earlier that morning.) While not begrudging Dylan this recognition of his talent, Kellogg did lament the Nobel committee’s selection as a missed opportunity to celebrate not poetry, or even literature, but books. Dylan has written books, but no one’s arguing that the incomprehensible Tarantula, or even the critically acclaimed 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, put him on the committee’s radar. By thus celebrating Dylan’s achievement, one argument goes, the Nobel committee turned a spotlight on a writer of indisputable genius, who has rarely been out of the spotlight. Lesser known writers remain just that, for another year, at least.

    I’ve written elsewhere about how, in the late 60s and early 70s, Dylan’s songcraft was smuggled into American high school and college classrooms under the false flag of poetry. At the time, it was the only way to get pop songs past the cultural gatekeepers: a necessary subterfuge, perhaps. But to call Dylan’s lyrics poetry is to misunderstand the nature of both poetry and popular song. By any measure the Dylan songbook constitutes an imposing body of writing that skillfully exploits the resources of poetry. For anyone with an ear for what T. S. Eliot called “the music of poetry,” the opening lines of “Like a Rolling Stone,” perhaps Dylan’s most famous song, are overstuffed with rhymes and insistent hard stresses: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine / You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” Time/fine/dime/prime; You/threw/you; even, almost, Once/bums. It’s a dazzling workshop demonstration of what in “Mr. Tambourine Man” is called “vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme.”

    But poetry? Maybe — but only, I’d say, in the dynamic of performance, rather than fixed and frozen on the page. Those who hear poetry in these lines also most likely hear them in Dylan’s unmistakable, urgent, nasal, rushing-then-dawdling delivery; his phrasing is nothing you’d ever guess from the page, hitting hard — way too hard, like a middle-school student on the end rhymes in a Dickinson poem — every rhyming and rhythmic element of the song. (It seems likely this is a trick Dylan adopted from his hero Woody Guthrie: listen to how Woody puts the accent on both the first and second syllables of “island” in the opening verse of “This Land Is Your Land” to make sure we don’t miss the rhyme. Surely no other native speaker of English has ever called Manhattan an EYE-LAND.) James Joyce, reading his work in progress Finnegans Wake to a visitor (that poetic novel surely an inspiration for Tarantula, as it was for John Lennon’s In His Own Write), was disappointed when she declared that what she’d heard “isn’t literature.” “It was,” Joyce replied — that is, it was literature, while it was in the air, shaped and caressed by Joyce’s voice.

    When it comes to Dylan, I’m not even sure it’s finally all that helpful to call his songwriting literature: while his is obviously a very literary use of language, awarding it a prize designated for literature seems to put some people’s backs up. (Professional curmudgeon Roger Kimball tweeted out that when he saw the news, he thought he was reading The Onion.) One of the gifts of poststructuralism to cultural criticism was its demonstration of the arbitrary and finally ideological procedures that seek to separate “poetry” and “literature” from (plain ol’) writing, as wheat from chaff. Poetry, in the most extreme versions of this thinking, is really the name for a certain generous and generative way of reading; poetry is something readers do as much as something writers create, and “literature” is the benediction we pronounce over writing that seems to do just what we want — or better, does nothing, “makes nothing happen,” in W. H. Auden’s haunting phrase.

    Given the manifestly degraded state of our current public discourse, there’s perhaps some value in reminding ourselves that language that is put even to very pointed political uses can be not just effective, or powerful, but beautiful into the bargain. Though his work may not be poetry and the excitement surrounding his award probably won’t sell many books, Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature is surely appropriate recognition of his back pages.


    Header image by Fred McDarrah