In 2004 Newsweek magazine described Bob Dylan as the “the most influential cultural figure now alive”. Few would doubt his immense influence on the popular song, but the question of whether he qualifies as a poet has raged on throughout his career. Christopher Ricks, the erstwhile Regius professor of poetry at Oxford, and Frank Kermode, the Cambridge literary critic, championed the cause since the 1960s, comparing Dylan with Milton, Keats Wordsworth and Tennyson. Bob Dylan, as one would expect, gave many different answers to the question. In a famous response in 1965, Dylan said he thought of himself ‘more as a song and dance man’. In a motel room in Denver, Dylan told Robert Shelton ‘Hey I would love to say I am a poet. I would really like to think of myself as a poet, but I just can’t because of all the slobs who are called poets.’ Leonard Cohen a long-time admirer of Dylan, describing him as the Picasso of song, commented that poetry as a verdict and not a self-ascription. In ‘I Shall be Free No. 10’, Dylan mockingly sings: ‘Yippie. I’m a poet, and I know it. Hope I don’t blow it’.
Well, he certainly hasn’t blown it! After rumours of innumerable nominations the Nobel Prize committee has given its verdict and has elevated Bob Dylan to the company of Rudyard Kipling, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner and Seamus Heaney. Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Academy, anticipating a purist backlash, compared Dylan to Homer, and predicted his poetic texts would still be performed in 5000 years. In its 115 year history this is the first time a songwriter has been awarded the prize. Dylan transformed the song lyric to the status of poetry, and according to the judges, created ‘new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.
It was indeed a surprise to hear that Bob Dylan is the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nick Kershaw, a radio DJ, commented that it must have been for the body of work he did between 1962 and 1976 (Bob Dylan to Blood on the Tracks). He claimed that Blood on the Tracks was the last great album to emanate from Dylan. This is too simplistic a view. It is true to say that he never produced another iconic album after that (some may argue that the Grammy award winning Time Out of Mind is up there with them). He has gone through some lean patches when the muse appeared to have deserted him. His latest two albums, for example, are covers from the great American song book, and who could forget his Christmas in the Heart! However, there are certainly individual songs that reach those giddy heights of the poet imagination comparable with Blood on the Tracks. On that album the imagery of the lyrics is both clever and powerful: 'He walked into the corner, face down, like the Jack of Hearts'. In the 2001 song Mississippi, he lamented: 'My clothes are wet, tight on my skin. Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in.' 'Dignity' and 'Aint Dark Yet' are other songs that come to mind.
On stage in Las Vegas, the same night as the announcement, Dylan was back to the day job -- the never ending tour -- singing some of his great anthems, such as ‘Blowin in the Wind’, for which there was rapturous applause. He made no mention of the coveted prize, nor would he be making any immediate announcement according to his spokesman. The enigma that is Bob Dylan rolls on. He has surpassed the achievements of his namesake, about whom he made the irritated repost, ‘I’ve done more for Dylan Thomas than he ever did for me’.
DAVID BOUCHER is Professor of Political Philosophy at Cardiff University and Distinguished visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg. He was the recipient of a British Academy grant to write the book Dylan and Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll. He is the editor with Garry Browning, of The Political Art of Bob Dylan, and of a number of articles on Bod Dylan, Dylan Thomas and the Bet Generation.
Photo by Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz - Bob Dylan, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11811170