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On Dylan and the meaning of literature

I am not sure where this belongs, but Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature. That’s fantastic.


Ha, I just posted this in the ‘weird news’ thread. :slight_smile:

It is an unexpected pick.

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It was mooted a couple of times before. I never thought it would happen.

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Bob Dylan is no less than the Poet Laureate of the 20th Century.


Quoted for truth. Blood on the Tracks is one of my favourite things…not only one of my favourite albums.

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My faves (at the moment, they shift)

Blood on the Tracks
Blonde on Blond
Highway 61 Revisited
Street Legal

Possibly Street Legal makes it due to the strength of “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)”. Magnificent lyrics, and such a killer guitar part over the chorus at the end!

“Everybody must get stoned”. Epic poetry. :slight_smile:


No argument with the first four, but I think Time Out of Mind belongs in the top five.

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They shift! “Cold Irons Bound”! Fond of John Wesley Harding and the Soundtrack from ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’ too. And a bunch of others.

I’m not sure I agree. I’m both a musician and a writer, and I can’t call songs literature. This feels dishonest to me.


Hey…Don’t blame me. I promise you that I had no say in it. Take it up with the Nobel committee. :wink:

Also, I would very much like for Tom Stoppard to get the award as well. Not sure if it’s going to happen.

lol… absolutely I’m taking it up with the Nobel committee. Their official website doesn’t really list much in the way of goals and objectives for awarding prizes; as such, the complete obscurantism behind their process forces me to take a literal view of the awards. Literature is hard enough to define when you’re talking about written-only content, and one of the great phenomena of the 21st century is the proliferation of voices in both literary fiction and non-fiction, to such an extent that I don’t know how you could even possibly pretend it’s possible to choose an individual to recognize per year, and that’s without mixing music into it also. It strikes me as sounding positively lazy, as if the committee didn’t really feel like reading much literature themselves this year, and instead just reflected on some artists, not necessary literary, from the past that mattered.


That’s a fair point, but there is a literary quality to songs’ lyrics, and I think that’s what’s being acknowledged here - not his songs, but Dylans’s lyrics and their impact on literature. I think that’s fair enough, really.


Is it, though? What suggests to you that he had an impact on literature (as opposed to, you know, music)?

I just read the justification the committee gave-

Danius said the choice of Dylan may appear surprising, “but if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”


I get what they’re trying to say, but I think it’s still false. Our perception of Homer et. al. Is distorted through a perception of history, tradition and notions of the “classic.” I strongly disagree that Dylan’s lyrics are comparable, and I doubt that Dylan himself would ever endorse just reading his lyrics as a form of artistic consumption. and if in 300 years people are studying his lyrics in literature courses I think it’ll have become a very strange world, indeed.

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I believe that Dylan thinks of himself as a simple Song and Dance Man, so you may be right.

Bit late for that; people have been studying Dylan’s lyrics in literary studies for decades now. But then, they also have courses about films and whatnot. Modern literary studies has also become cultural studies to an extent anyway, and you’re as likely to find a seminar on urban hip-hop as you are to find one on Homer or Faulkner. People will study anything if you let them, basically.

As for comparability - it’s not just Homer, the epic poems of the middle ages were also sung. Song is where the rhyme and verse structure of our poems comes from. And there is a case to be made that Dylan found a way back to this medieval tradition: the minstrels and troubadours of the Middle Ages were also basically moving newspapers, spreading news and their comment on those news with their songs, much like Dylan did with e.g. Story of a Hurricane.

And there’s really no need to read the lyrics without the music, you can listen to them and read them and focus on the text part of the song as a literary piece of work - just as you can focus, in musical studies, on the harmonics and structure of the music while being aware of the lyrics - and what do I know, maybe they do analyse the lyrics in musical studies, too. Why would you deny a text any form of literary merit just because it primarily unfolds in context with music? You might just as well deny musical merit because a song has lyrics that are sung, and doesn’t consist purely of musical structures, like a lot of classical music and jazz do. I would indeed find a world strange in which lyrics weren’t studied as literature (as they frequently are, and not just Dylan’s).

There’s many great poets in music, from Leonard Cohen to Nick Cave, and these are the words people actually listen to these days, as opposed to the many volumes of poetry produced nowadays that are hardly read by anyone but literary critics and academics. A lot of songwriting is pretty bad poetry, too, but it certainly is that. And while Dylan himself might not approve of reading his lyrics without the music, he certainly has the ambition to be a poet - remember who he named himself after, after all. But then, he probably does approve, as there’s a collected edition of his lyrics out there (actually, there’ve been a number of collections, I see) that probably couldn’t have been published without his approval…

And to get back to your question about his impact on literature - Allen Ginsberg was certainly influenced by him, Joyce Carrol Oates has acknowlegded his influence by dedicating a story to him, he’s been quoted by countless writers in their work (for example Alan Moore in Watchmen), phrases of his lyrics have become popular culture to the extent that the words will be recognised anywhere.


Oh, and I forgot to mention this:

Not lazy, I suspect, but there is probably a pragmatic motivation behind this. Over the last years, the Nobel Prize for Literature has often deliberately gone to obscure writers - Svetlana Alexievich or Hertha Müller for example - that are hardly known even in their own countries, let alone internationally. I think a big part of how they see their purpose is raising great writers’ profiles. But now and then, it’s probably good for the Nobel Prize to be in the news itself, to raise its profile and show its relevancy and that people still talk about it, so it can continue to do that other job. I suspect that they were well aware that this choice would have that effect.


Heh. Dylan may say that about himself, but he also references Rimbaud in his songs and talks about Shakespeare in how he writes his songs. Nothing about him has ever been simple, really.

By the way, all of you great people: Those of you who haven’t seen the movie “I’m Not There” yet, go and seek it out. It’s a wonderful little movie; a reflection on Bob Dylan that tries to capture him by telling stories about a bunch of different folk singers who all aren’t Bob Dylan, and all are.