Imagine it was announced that you’d won the Nobel Prize in literature. You are, in fact, not predominantly a literary figure, you are not a novelist, or in any conventional way a poet. Your one important literary outing is the memoir Chronicles, told in fragments, which offers a reflection of yourself as you might appear in a shattered mirror.
You are a worker in many fields: songwriting; iron sculpture; forms of disguise and disappearance. Your influences include: Gorgeous George, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, Harold Arlen, Frank Sinatra, as well as many black bluesman of the American south.
One of your prime motivations, alongside your work as a writer and performer, is to scorn celebrity and conventional fame, to wriggle free of the detritus of extreme popular success in America.
So when word goes out about the prize you don’t pick up the phone. You advise your assistants not to respond to emails or texts. The Nobel people don’t know what to do. They want you in Stockholm for dinner, a speech, and to pick up your cheque. One of the committee members expresses his pique to the press, and he is officially discounted by his Swedish colleagues as speaking only for himself.
A substantial discussion takes shape in the press and on the Internet as to whether you are a deserving candidate. This, in the absence of any consideration of the idiosyncratic choices made by the Nobel committee for its 2014 and 2015 prizes. In 2014 the prize went to the Paris-based novelist Patrick Modiano, who was little known outside French-reading circles, and who was himself astonished upon receiving the call informing him that he was the recipient of the world’s major literary prize (Modiano did, however, promptly accept the committee’s offer).
In 2015 a minor kerfuffle arose regarding the choice of the Belarusian Svetalana Alexievich, whose literary method focuses on lengthy interviews with everyday Russians, which she compiles as oral records of Russians’ experience of World War II, the Afghan invasion, and the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich is the kind of writer the Nobel committee had not honoured before.
Any argument for Bob Dylan’s influence on American songwriting and popular culture is redundant. Since the early ’60s, with a few dips in output and flights in search of anonymity, he has remained a key cultural force. His early records repositioned American heartland music – what one critic has called the “old, weird America.” Dylan’s songs blend English folk ballads, southern blues, and rock and roll as it was first practised by such madmen as Little Richard, while discovering an original American vernacular style.
The decision to “go electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival should not be viewed as a rejection of the folk ethos of the time, but as a recognition of the genius of American music as it moved through a revival of electric blues. During the last 15 years Dylan has created a new mélange of these styles, blending early rock and roll, blues forms and gypsy jazz in a way that forces listeners to reconsider what these musical genres mean in an increasingly divided America.
But what, the detractors cry, has all this to do with literature? The answer depends on what you feel is fairly included under that rubric (the Nobel committee is clearly aiming at an expansion of the category). The stylistic variety, originality, and evocative impact of Dylan’s lyrics can be accounted for by a long list of examples. The more one listens intently to his songs the more one is stopped in one’s tracks, moved into some otherworldly sense of the wider world, the past, or oneself.
From the early work there is the rebellious Subterranean Homesick Blues: “You don’t need a weatherman / to know which way the wind blows.” On his 1979 masterpiece Slow Train Coming, there is the foot-stomping rendering of another kind of prophetic voice, newly supported by Christian zeal:
Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna put my good foot forward,
And stop being influenced by fools.
And on the more recent Tempest, the listener encounters a surreal, even scary mix of ancient and contemporary, in another Dylanesque version of the wider world:
All the early Roman kings
In their sharkskin suits
Bow ties and buttons
High top boots
Blazin’ the rails
Nailed in their coffins
In their top hats and tails.
We are used to quoting great poets to highlight the magic and strangeness in their voice. Their language lifts us off our feet and throws us down, newly prepared for what comes next. Dylan’s weird mix of high and low, of the vernacular and the broader cultural tradition, offers as rich a brew as that of the poets he cites as his own youthful models.
In Chronicles he describes his arrival in a snow-covered Greenwich Village from the north country of Minnesota. His first room is borrowed from friends whose apartment houses an eclectic library: “I read the poetry books, mostly. Byron and Shelley and Longfellow and Poe. I memorized Poe’s poem the Bells and strummed it to a melody on my guitar.”
As he tramps about Manhattan and Brooklyn he stops out front of the coach house where Walt Whitman worked as a printer, and the house where Poe wrote The Raven. His reading and interests push far back to the destructive years of the American Civil War, as well as toward a recognition of his American moment – the mid-’60s – as an alarming period of upheaval and division. “A lot was changing in America,” Dylan writes in Chronicles. Cold War fear ruled the airwaves. Advertising culture promoted the idea that you “could do whatever you wanted . . . ignore your limitations, defy them.” In these recollections Dylan is an evocative poet of his times, describing a country on the cusp of a great divide, as it remains today.
The question of Dylan’s relationship to literature arises in Chronicles when the U.S. Poet Laureate, Archibald MacLeish, invites him for a visit to his rural Massachusetts home. “MacLeish’s place was up past a quaint village on a quiet mountain laurel road – bright maple leaves piled high around the walkway.” He queries Dylan about his reading, his opinion of Pound and Eliot. And he wants to collaborate with Dylan on an idea he has for a play that will follow a recent Broadway success. Then MacLeish tell Dylan “that he considers me a serious poet and that my work would be a touchstone for generations after me, that I was a postwar Iron Age poet but that I had seemingly inherited something metaphysical from a bygone era.”
This anecdote is quickly buried amidst other recollections. Of the offer to collaborate, Dylan admits, “After listening intently, I intuitively realized that I didn’t think this was for me.”
Dylan’s answer to the Nobel committee’s invitation is that he will attend: “Absolutely, if it’s at all possible.” Should a writer deserving of the Nobel Prize, in our idiosyncratic age, be any less ambiguous about his plans?