I was lucky. I came to Bob Dylan after the 1960s.
I came to him without the weight of his being “the prophet of a generation”. It wasn’t Masters of War, Blowin’ in the Wind, or even The Times they are a Changin’ that grabbed me.
It was songs like It Ain’t Me Babe,
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
You say you’re looking for someone
Who’ll pick you up each time you fall
To gather flowers constantly
An’ to come each time you call
A lover for your life an’ nothing more
But it ain’t me, babe
This was an anti-love song: one about someone who was OK with saying that all the ideal male traits of romantic songs, films, books and advertisements in the 1950s was impossible for him. And I found out later when I studied Browning at University that it had the literary form of a dramatic monologue.
Then came Blood on the Tracks in 1975, the album that many regard as Dylan’s best. Here was mature heartbreak. Two people in Idiot Wind who once loved each other can no longer even be near each other;
In order to get in a word with you
I’da had to make up some excuse,
It just struck me kinda funny.
That’s where it all started and it has not stopped.
Nice, even clever, lines you might say but is he a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? I say yes. The news of the Prize has split the literary world. Some think it is a joke. Others have tried to justify it. Journalists have been at pains to point out that some experts think his words divested of music and put down on paper hold their own as literature.
Sara Danius, a literary scholar and the permanent secretary of the 18-member academy, called Dylan “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” and compared him to Homer and Sappho, whose work was delivered orally.
In fact, Dylan’s work is far more literary than most of his fans realise, with echoes of the greats of the Western Canon floating through his lyrics. Christopher Ricks, a professor at Boston University, believes that Dylan is “the greatest living user of the English language” and compares him with Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Eliot, and, he says, “that Dylanesque writer, William Shakespeare.” He’s not alone. Dylan has been nominated for the Nobel Prize every year since 1996.
In any case, since when does genius have to be confined to conventional forms and categories, like cereal boxes on a supermarket shelf?
But I’ve always felt that there is no need to justify Dylan’s work on the basis that it is just as good as “normal poetry”. The citation of the Swedish Academy says that Dylan received the award for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
There is no question about this. Dylan created new poetic expressions with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a harmonica harness around his neck. While purists see poetry and songwriting as two different things, the modern world has brought them together. There is no way Dylan could have received this Prize in any other time but our own.
He belongs to the era of the mass production of recorded music, to the era of the radio, the television and a huge music industry. This made his music accessible to just about everyone, at first in the affluent West and now, in just about every corner of the world. This had never happened before in the history of humanity.
Dylan’s muse and inspiration, Woody Guthrie, would never have been able to have the mass audience that Dylan has. He lived too early. The reach of Dylan’s work is what has made it possible for him to contribute “new forms of poetic expression to the history of songwriting in America”.
He dragged the folk songs which Guthrie wrote out of the dustbowl of America and threw them in the faces of people who didn’t like to think the American Dream contained pockets of disadvantage and at times misery.
He transmitted the anti-establishment message of the early folk recording artists to more people than Guthrie could every dream of. He brought the disadvantage and the exploitation to the attention of more people than Steinbeck could ever have done.
And then, when everyone thought they had him figured out, he plugged his guitar in and belted out songs about princesses in steeples – rich, girls who are so pampered they would not know what to do if they were stripped of their expensive education, their fashion and connections to politicians and had to confront tramps in the street. What would they feel like, if they were just rolling stones? And is this not the same question we are asked in Lord of the Flies? What becomes of us when we are stripped of our civilization?
Do the questions lose their power if they are posed about society girls in a song and not about English boarding school boys in a novel? Over the decades Dylan changed his style and themes again and agains. The sheer variety and volume of his songs are overwhelming. And that’s another sign of literary greatness — constantly renewed creativity.
The artists who take up residence in the collective consciousness are often breakers of moulds: new voices for a new age. Dylan has thrilled millions upon millions of people, giving voice to their frustration, sadness, joy and dreams. It’s about time that the Nobel Prize descended from Olympus. Dylan is an inspired choice.
Martin Fitzgerald is a teacher at Redfield College, in Sydney.