With the announcement that Bob Dylan, the Bard of Hibbing, Minnesota, has received the Nobel Prize in literature came the big debate: is songwriting a form of literature? Should the award go to one of the world’s most popular and beloved singers rather than lifting up novelists and the culture of books? And if so, should that singer be Bob Dylan?
Here to debate the issue are Flavorwire’s Dylan-lovin’ Deputy Editor Sarah Seltzer and the site’s boomer-basher-in-chief (and Editor-in-Chief) Tom Hawking.
Sarah Seltzer: Okay, I am going to make my case that Dylan deserves the Nobel; and I say that as a fan who walked out of the last Dylan concert I attended because it was so abysmal. Lyric poetry was invented when people recited words accompanied by the lyre. Music and poetry belong together — in fact one could argue that the popular position of poets in bygone eras has been replaced in some cases by lyrical musicians, especially in genres like folk and hip-hop that are so densely, rhythmically and intricately worded. In the realm of white male folk-rock lyricists, I have moved somewhat away from Dylan as my personal favorite. I hit my 30s I tend to favor the cool beauty of Joni Mitchell, the brute passion and amicable showmanship of Springsteen and the sensual, spiritual meld of Leonard Cohen.
Tom Hawking: Yeah, honestly if there was one signer I’d give this award to, it wouldn’t be Bob Dylan. It’d be Leonard Cohen. I think he’s just a better writer than Dylan. You can certainly make the argument that Dylan’s been more prolific and more influential, but the Nobel has been given to writers in the past who are far less productive and more obscure than Cohen is.
Sarah Seltzer: But even as I personally love Cohen (and other lyricists too) — maybe even more than Dylan — I think Dylan’s work with words is more inventive and original, and switches modes more often. Cohen always feels like he’s writing as Cohen, which again, I adore because Cohen seems like a wonderful, charming, wry person. Dylan often hides behind his work, maddeningly so. He builds screens of words, sometimes putting thick blocks of incredible images together that you try in vain break through for a clear meaning (“Visions of Johanna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man”) sometimes telling long stories (“Isis”) and sometimes singing simply about complex subjects (“One Too Many Mornings.”)
I also admit Dylan’s persona can be that of a jerk, to put it bluntly (“Positively 4th Street,” “Idiot Wind,” “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”) but when he is in scorched-earth mode, he scorches the earth like no one else. He can also be incredibly tender, and passive aggressive, and lecherous. This range shows him to be a writer of tremendous power, looking at the entire oeuvre. But on a micro-level, I feel that his lyrics function as literature because they contain conflicting impulses within them, impulses that play against each other: sarcasm and reverence, love and loss, regret and the desire to move on. Beyond his denser masterpieces, he also has the poetic ability to tell a story through a few spare phrases, an ability that I think is unparalleled: a song like “One More Cup of Coffee” comes to mind. It’s minimalist, yes, but while listening you see the desert, the family with the outlaw dad and the mystical women, and the wandering speaker who needs to depart but is compelled to stay. And you also see yourself, anytime you’ve been with someone you’re drawn to and don’t want to leave.
TH: We probably shouldn’t make this a Cohen-vs-Dylan debate, although that’s definitely a topic to revisit at another time! But if we’re going to take one singer to whom to give the Nobel Prize, I’m just not sure that it’s Bob Dylan. I don’t think Bob Dylan is bad — his music is an acquired taste, certainly, but he’s written some wonderful songs, which clearly have great historical significance. But shit, the Nobel Prize for Literature? Think of the writers who’ve never received this prize!
This decision feels almost like a stunt, and the praise that the Swedish Academy is directing Dylan’s way feels awfully like self-justifying hyperbole. The Nobel committee’s permanent secretary, one Sara Danius, was quoted widely this morning as saying, “For 54 years now [Dylan]’s been at it, reinventing himself constantly.” I’m not sure that’s true; he’s literally been doing the same thing for the past 30 years. One of the Academy members described Dylan thus: “He is probably the greatest living poet.” Really? Claudia Rankine would have something to say about that, I’m sure, as would plenty of other contemporary poets. I think you’re right about the idea of contemporary lyric poetry — song lyrics — being as valid a form as what we think of as more classic, on-the-page poetry, but I also think calling Dylan “our greatest living poet” is… well, it seems over-the-top to me.
Finally — and I know this is a subject I tend to go on about a lot, so I’ll keep it brief — this is very much a decision that reflects how predominant the cultural hegemony of the 1960s remains. In every decade since, there have been musicians who’ve torn up the rule book just as radically as Dylan did when he plugged in an electric guitar, but the dominant cultural narrative is still that the 1960s were special, and different, and important, and that they represented some sort of cultural peak we’ll never reach again. This is reactionary nonsense, and honestly I’m tired of hearing it.
SS: But my favorite Dylan songs are from the ’70s! Look, I am a child of boomers who cut my cultural teeth on the big trio of Motown, The Beatles and Dylan, so it’s hard for me to step outside that generational bubble. So I can only speak to my own experience discovering Dylan’s lyrics and reading them the way I read the Beats and the Romantics and the 19th century novelists: hungrily, formatively, as literature. Sure, I agree that “greatest living poet” might be hyperbole, but I think we could certainly argue that Dylan is one person of a select few who combines the wide reach of a pop star with sophisticated poetic forms and techniques, including gorgeous figurative language. He brings poetry to those who would never pick up a chapbook (although there are plenty of rappers doing that now, and I hope to see a nobel for Kendrick in 40 years.) To me, in terms of breadth of work and output, as well as sheer magic with words, Dylan is a master. His phrases and linguistic constructions I return to again and again the way I return to my other favorite poets: Yeats, Keats, Edna St. Vincent Millay. That having been said, I hope the Nobel Committee goes back to rewarding other kinds of literature: novels, essays, and more, in addition to adding songwriters into the mix.
TH: If we see a Nobel for Kendrick in 40 years then I will enter my last days on earth pleasantly surprised! I would love, love, love to see that. I think the idea of extending the literature rubric beyond the traditional novels-‘n’-poetry is a good one; I’m just not convinced that this is the right choice. But ultimately, any sort of an award is going to be subjective, and there are going to be those who disagree with the decision made. I imagine they’ll be living it up at Desert Trip tonight, and good luck to them.