Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan
This has been debated for a long long time. I used to insert the issue into one of my lectures, ten years ago and more (more). “Should Bob Dylan get the Nobel Prize for Literature?”
I didn’t really answer the question then and I won’t know. (What sort of worthwhile question gets “answered”?) As far as Dylan is concerned, I am a fan and I’m biased. His songs mean more to me than most poems and the poetry inside his songs means more to me than most poems. His songs are full of poetry and he has distributed playful and expressive rhymes far and wide. At the same time, I’ve always been worried by the condescension and structural snobbery implied by the idea of elevating Bob to the pantheon of “Literature”. It’s as though the stuffed shirts are thinking “you know, this unkempt mumbling minstrel does some rather nice things with words. But because he’s scratched his words on vinyl rather than print them inside a neat little Faber and Faber paperback, he can’t be “Art”. But we will rescue him. We will listen carefully to his mumblings, print them inside and neat little Faber and Faber paperback and then he can be Art.”
Are those who acclaim Bob Dylan as a poet showing disdain for the medium in which he as chosen to work? Why is “Literature” somehow “higher” than songwriting? Why is “Literature” a promotion?
And yet, there’s a different way of looking at the issue. Poetry is, after all, older than literacy. The first poets were performance poets. Silent reading is (in the context of the human story), a comparatively recent phenomenon, and verses were not verses, not real, until a voice brought them into being. That’s what being a “bard” was all about, before about 1500. The distinction between the creation of verses and the voice chanting those verses had not yet been born.
Many people don’t like Bob Dylan’s voice. No, really, it’s true. Honest. Really. I’ve actually met these people. They say he has a voice like a clinically depressed vacuum cleaner and his voice gets in the way of appreciating what it is he’s saying. Can you believe that? For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a recording of T.S. Eliot reciting “Hollow Men” and he sounds terrible – slow, dull, ponderous – Eliot manages to suck all the life out of his own verses.
Many Renaissance lyrics were of course set to music – music which has since been lost. Such poems were (are) actually called “lyrics” and “songs”. When we enjoy lyrics without the original and structuring music, are we betraying some sacred principle of intentionality (clue – it’s not sacred at all)? Are song lyrics without music “found poems”? Are we getting half a work of art or a completely different work of art?
Are songs “literature”? Well once upon a time novels weren’t. We recall that Winston Churchill (ludicrously) was given the Nobel Prize for Literature for his histories. Bertrand Russell was given the Nobel Prize for Literature for his prose essays – a laudable award because Russell wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century. Form does not define “literature”. “Literature” is defined by a set of expectations – a particular kind of receptive state of mine.
Bob Dylan himself does not need this prize. This will not make Bob Dylan appreciatively more famous than he already is. The definitional controversy provoke by giving it to Bob Dylan will, however, make the Nobel Prize for Literature more famous than it already is.
Usually, this prize is about making literature famous.
This year it’s been about making fame literary.
Most years, I’ll be honest, I need to look up whoever has won this prize. And that’s good for me. Most years I find myself thinking… “I don’t know her – come to think of it I don’t know anything about Paraguayan crime fiction” and then I look her up and start to get interested and realise (yet again) the sheer height, breadth and depth of my own literary ignorance. I recognise, with a sense of chastened awe, that there are oceans of literary experiences dashing at my feet, as yet unexplored.
If this award is about “elevating” someone to the status of a literary giant, then it’s a regressive piece of structural snobbery and A Bad Thing. When Dylan called himself a “song and dance man” – he deserved to be taken seriously. The world needs more song and dance. But if the award leads to a long and loud and complicated argument about the meaning of literature and the meaning of language and the relationship between how imagery is developed on a page rather than by the human voice – then this award is a wonderful thing. Especially for me.
In the meantime, here are all the words to “Desolation Row”. Philip Larkin loved these words, and the order they were put in.
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he when off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row
The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest
They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get outta here if you don’t know”
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row”
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row