Visible Republic

Gentlemen, he said, I don't need your organization. And surely Bob Dylan, one of the wealthiest and most successful artists in the history of the world, did not require the imprimatur of the Nobel Committee for Literature at the Swedish Academy. Nevertheless, here we were, on the morning of October 13, 2016, arguing about whether it made a lick of sense for a popular songwriter—even the popular songwriter—to be awarded this most prestigious of literary prizes. Was there precedent? There was not: Every single previous winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—even Winston Churchill (1953)—won for writings that were primarily, um, writings.

Twitter was aquiver with approbation and disdain. Stephen King and Salman Rushdie were pro, Hari Kunzru and Gary Shteyngart were anti. I was briefly made livid by something the critic Jody Rosen tweeted: "Cute, but songwriting isn't literature." This is not true. "Sir Patrick Spens" is literature. And if the blues is "primarily a verse form and secondarily a way of making music," as Amiri Baraka wrote in Blues People, surely the same could be said of rap.

But I soon realized Rosen's claim was a hyperbolic version of a point I actually agree with, which he clarified in subsequent tweets. Rosen was opposing the notion that popular music needs to be validated by literary honorifics, while I was rejecting the notion that popular music can't be literary. These positions aren't mutually exclusive.

Bob Dylan, 2009. © David Gahr
Bob Dylan, 2009. © David Gahr

And decades after the much-hyped, much-distorted advent of barbarian postmodernism at the gates of the academy, Rosen's argument is probably the more relevant one. That popular art—film and comics and hip-hop—is no less worthy of sustained intellectual engagement than literature (which is at any rate an amorphous and contested category) is fairly well established by now, despite the fulminations of Harold Bloom. It's not that pop music doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize but that pop music doesn't need it. (And, uh, guys? John Ashbery is still alive.)

Furthermore, if the thing had to be given to a North American musician—and my feeds were filled with folks proposing boring alternatives like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen—why not one of the black pioneers without whom Robert Zimmerman would just be an annoying amalgam of Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac? Chuck Berry, as Rosen suggested, or Little Richard? Or why not Sly Stone? Or if we're really talking "great poets," as the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary had it, Rakim or Chuck D or Ghostface Killah?

Well, because demographics, to put it politely. Boomer hagiography of Dylan should be its own Nobel category. Have you heard that Dylan went electric over fifty years ago, and some mope shouted "Judas"? If not, allow me to recommend a few dozen books on the subject. The academics, especially, are full of passionate intensity. Christopher Ricks has written some of the smartest poetry analysis you'll ever read, and Dylan's Visions of Sin is very smart. It also sounds like this:

And Dylan is energy incarnate. Energy is Activity. . . . The opposite of slothful? "Diligent" is the opposing term that is everywhere in the Book of Proverbs (which Dylan knows like the back of God's hand). O O O O that Dylanesque rag. It's so elegant. So intelligent. So Dyligent. Never negligent.

The day after the announcement, the Times ran an article I refuse to read with the headline "Bob Dylan 101: A Harvard Professor Has the Coolest Class on Campus." Dylan has exacerbated this tendency by writing (in addition to some of the best lyrics in the popular tradition) a lot of self-consciously literary gunk ("Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain's tower"—Dad, please, you're embarrassing me).

But our age is characterized by, in Bifo Berardi's words, "an excess of speed of the Infosphere in relation to the ability of elaboration of the brain," so instant reactions are demanded, with little or no time for thoughtful reflection. In other words, just when I was starting to feel that popular song hardly needed to be defended, the think pieces began to appear. Most were simply banal (the New Yorker invited a bunch of writers to pick their favorite Dylan lyrics). But Stephen Metcalf, writing for Slate, went all in, proclaiming that "Bob Dylan is a musician, not a poet." To prove it, he quoted the poet Richard Wilbur:

And did we not recall
That Egypt's north was in the Dragon's tail?
As if a form of type should fall
And dash itself like hail,

The heavens jumped away,
Bursting the cincture of the zodiac,
Shot flares with nothing left to say
To us, not coming back

Unless they should at last,
Like hard-flung dice that ramble out the throw,
Be gathered for another cast.

Followed by these lines from Dylan's "Up to Me":

Oh, the Union Central is pullin' out and the orchids are in bloom
I've only got me one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume
In fourteen months I've only smiled once and I didn't do it consciously
Somebody's got to find your trail, I guess it must be up to me

According to Metcalf, Dylan's lines "are colloquial, spare, painterly, and without the accompanying music, inert." Wilbur's poem "is poetry," Dylan's song is just "lyrics."

"Colloquial, spare, painterly" could describe some of the best poems in the language, including several by Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorine Niedecker, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Pickard—I could go on and on. If Dylan's lines aren't poetry, neither is this, from a poem by Langston Hughes:

My old time daddy
Came back home last night.
His face was pale and
His eyes didn't look just right.

He says, "Mary, I'm
Comin' home to you—
So sick and lonesome
I don't know what to do."

What Metcalf is really saying, whether he means to or not, is that poetry is about fancy stuff like the cincture of the zodiac, not the Union Central pullin' out.

It's no accident that both Dylan and Hughes draw on the blues, which draws on Christian rhetoric, which represented for Erich Auerbach the merging of the high and low styles of classical antiquity. I don't think Metcalf means to denigrate lyrics as such—there's nothing wrong with just writing lyrics—and I don't mean to, either. But the hierarchy he establishes is invidious in itself. Yes, Dylan is a poet—and a musician and a lyricist. "Poet" is just an honorific we grant for different reasons at different times (take a look at how elastic Shelley gets with it in "A Defence of Poetry").

And yet—so what? Dylan's honorific-withholding detractors do have a point,
one Ellen Willis made best in the pages of Cheetah in 1967: "Words or rhymes that seem gratuitous in print often make good musical sense, and Dylan's voice, an extraordinary interpreter of emotion . . . makes vague lines clear. . . . The result is a unity of sound and word." It's the music, the performance. (Willis also wrote that "Dylan's music is not inspired," which would be nonsense even if she hadn't been writing just after the hat trick of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.)

As Albert Murray wrote of blues audiences in Stomping the Blues, as if contradicting Baraka, "Most of their goose pimples and all of their finger snapping and foot tapping are produced by the sound far more often than by the meanings of the words." This was what Rosen and Metcalf were getting at, and the argument doesn't require denying that songwriting can be literature or that songwriters can be poets. The poet Joshua Clover put it like this (also on Twitter): "1. of course songs can be lit 2. Dylan is an astonishing artist 3. it's not the lit part that makes him astonishing."

This truth crept into what was by far the best response piece, Greil Marcus's appreciation for the New York Times. Marcus began by sweeping the problem aside: "But whether Mr. Dylan is a poet—yes, he is being compared right now to Sappho, Homer, the great bards who sang—has never been an interesting question." He's right. But that is the question the Swedish Academy raised by giving a literary prize to someone whose words would never have meant so much to so many if they hadn't been set to such inspired music.

Marcus gets at what is most mind-buckling about the songwriter when he considers a performance of "Highway 61 Revisited" by Dylan and the Band on their 1974 tour (during which they recorded the live album Before the Flood, a colossal document that still renders all criticism two-dimensional):

The song may have reached its most intense pitch in a performance with the Band in Oakland, Calif., in 1974, when a broken riff from the guitarist Robbie Robertson between verses shot Mr. Dylan's attack for the final stanza—about staging the next world war between bleachers set up on Highway 61, the road that now runs from Minnesota to New Orleans—into a realm of vehemence, of Watch out! that the song had never known before.

That's it, that's the thing—Dylan isn't words. He's words plus Robertson's uncanny awk, drummer Levon Helm's cephalopodic clatter, the thin wild mercury of his voice. Listen to him sing "Blind Willie McTell," from The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3—voice swinging and creaking like magnolia trees in a storm—and tell me that what matters about this man is literature.

Nevertheless, Dylan joins the company of Pearl Buck and William Golding, while Ashbery remains in that of Tolstoy, Henry James, Proust, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, Langston Hughes, Borges, Nabokov, James Baldwin, and Chinua Achebe. The single best response to the zomg dylan won the nobel hullabaloo came from the poet Alice Notley, who simply retweeted some Dickinsonian lines she'd posted two years ago:

I gave myself the Nobel Prize for Literature—
Without the check—and also the
Medal of Freedom. I deserved both
of them; & now I have them.

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry volumes Alien vs. Predator (2012) and The Second Sex (2014; both Penguin). His essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in June 2017.