Denying Bob Dylan’s historical achievement is as good as denying literary convention.
Awarding the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to a cultural icon like Bob Dylan has, indubitably, cemented his legendary legacy as a game-changer. As the announcement of his success rolled in, I was simply floored. Almost immediately, it became apparent that an unconventional victory of this sort would be controversial amongst the literati. Sadly, I was proven right. Within the hours to follow, specious and bristling articles with little to no understanding of literary development – meant to rally against yet another “white male” victory as well as the purported one-upping of “true” writers like Anne Carson – flooded news outlets.
Indeed, Bob Dylan is not the second coming of W. H. Auden — nor is he Toni Morrison, the last American Nobel prize-winning author preceding Mr Dylan. This is precisely the reason he deserves recognition; Dylan has created, as the Nobel Prize Committee eloquently notes, “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. More importantly, he has led the galvanisation of an entire generation to embrace poetry and literature. There is no valid way of opposing his success at defying the confines of traditionalism without being intellectually disingenuous and willfully ignorant of literary history. Considering the spectrum of issues he has waxed poetic – from melding Shakespeare with Memphis to composing one of the more soul-crushing love songs known to mankind – a legitimate reason to deny him the title of “poet” is sorely amiss.
Questioning his literary merit on the basis of his profession is an obfuscation of history. With the help of a lyre, Greek Sapphic and Homeric poems established the oral tradition approximately 5000 years ago. Literary giants like the Bard and Chaucer have also emulated the form, using a broad spectrum of rhymes, allusions and other structural quirks to craft lyrical poetry staged to music. Jack Kerouac, a pioneer of the rebellious Beat Generation, collaborated with musicians such as Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Steve Allen to produce spoken word albums. A literary contemporary of Mr Kerouac, iconic poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti also worked with famed jazz saxophonist Stan Getz. Their credence as masters of the written word goes practically unquestioned, in spite of spoken word albums.
A 20th century provocateur with the Klaxon harmonica, it is difficult to discern subtle differences between Bob Dylan and the likes of Kerouac and Homer. Even as an unappreciative 13-year-old, one definitive quality of his music stood out to my ears: the man penned “near-perfect poetry”, as famed English literary critic Sir Christopher Ricks observes. Bob Dylan possesses an uncanny ability to convey issues, ranging from the Christian-centric Slow Train Coming to the spite-laden Like A Rolling Stone, using the tools of a poet. Be it an odd anaphora, masterful rhymes or sinister, sibilant sounds; he hones his compositions with the adroit precision of a troubadour, despite delivering deceptively muddled interpretations of his words.
And in line with his image as a rebel, it would not be a reach to think of Bob Dylan as a literary maverick of sorts – he has changed the mainstream approach to music and words. Coming from an era with saccharine Motown chart-toppers such as The Temptations’ Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, a protest song rooted in the Woody Guthrie folk tradition — like Blowin’ in the Wind – was genre-defining, thought-provoking and transformative. With every rhetorical question posed, an average listener at the time would have felt the inherent agony in his lyrics. Alternatively, there is also his experimentation with an unusual narrative structure in All Along the Watchtower. If structure is not your cup of tea, how about the time he penned the struggle of being in an impossible situation? By introducing complex literary ideas to the general public, he has heightened overall interest in the craft.
Regardless of one’s personal fancies, Bob Dylan is an indisputable cultural icon—one for the ages. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends: many, if not all of us, have had a fond memory or two involving a Bob Dylan tune. A personal favourite of mine involves my uncle humming along to Mr Tambourine Man in the car, whilst my aunt chuckled at his lack of musicality. Young and old, alike, are able to find common ground with his art.
Whilst I would have preferred the accolade to be bestowed upon Canadian artist Leonard Cohen for purely subjective reasons, the Nobel committee hit the nail on the head with this year’s selection. Mr Cohen himself likened Bob Dylan’s win to “pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” Unlike his predecessors, few artists have successfully reached out to the average person in a way he has. Throughout his illustrious career, he has shaped the minds of many in unconventional ways – occasionally bordering on the incomprehensible. By being a lyrically lush yet organic composer, Bob Dylan has revitalised an age-old literary convention whilst defying current tradition.
In our day and age, the definition of literature has expanded to include other platforms: an acknowledgement was long overdue. Regardless of race, gender or profession, it is time for critics to understand that literary elitism does not belong in today’s society. The Times They Are A-Changin, indeed.