Dylan is a worthy Nobel Prize winner
“I don’t call myself a poet because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist,” Bob Dylan said in 1965. Others agreed, not about the trapeze artistry but his poetry. “The official appearance of Bob Dylan’s Tarantula is not a literary event because Dylan is not a literary figure,” the New York Times intoned when his first book, a surrealist mix of poems and prose, was published in 1971.
Even with Thursday’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Dylan, the argument rumbles on. The Swedish Academy that judges the prize praised the 75-year-old for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. But in the colourful words of the novelist Irvine Welsh, it is “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”.
Dylan’s literary links are numerous. He borrowed the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s name when he changed his own from Robert Zimmerman. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, he describes himself digging “like an archaeologist” through the book-lined shelves of a Greenwich Village apartment in 1961 when he was 19, voraciously consuming everything from Balzac to Thucydides.
References to writers and texts are embedded in his dense, allusive, punning lyrics. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” rhymes its hokey country-and-western title with Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French symbolist poet and an important influence on Dylan’s writing style. A line from his song “Maybe Someday” about “hostile cities and unfriendly towns” echoes the poem “Journey of the Magi” by the modernist TS Eliot (“And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly”).
His omnivorous habit of absorbing information and recasting it in lyrics has led to accusations of copyism. “Bob is not authentic at all,” his 1960s contemporary Joni Mitchell complained in 2010. “He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”
Others argue, as per the New York Times’ review of Tarantula, that songs are not the same as poems. Their verses exist to be sung, not read in silence. A key distinction is the use of rhyme. In poetry, rhyming fell out of favour during early 20th-century modernism, never to recover. But Dylan has a lyricist’s love of rhyme: “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,/From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol”.
In 1991 the British playwright David Hare sparked a “Keats versus Dylan” punch-up between high and popular culture when he declared that the Romantic poet was unquestionably a better writer than the singer. But the comparison erects barriers that Dylan’s songs refuse to recognise.
“To the aspiring young songwriter I say disregard all the current stuff, forget it … read John Keats, Melville, listen to Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie,” Dylan advised in 1985.
There is more to literature than words on a page, just as there is more to music than notes on a sheet. This year’s Nobel laureate is the slipperiest in the prize’s history, the least easy to pin down, but no less deserving than his predecessors. As Dylan sang in 1964, with a sardonic twang to his voice: “Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it/Hope I don’t blow it.”
The writer is the FT’s pop music critic