Poets, singers, writers pipe up on Dylan’s Nobel Prize


Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature has writers and poets running fingers through their unkempt hair. Some are shocked. Some are angry. Some rub their palms together like squirrels with a nut.

“It was said of Mr. Dylan that he didn’t need the prize, that he is yet another old white guy, that he is arrogant, that he composes songs not poems,” writes poet and author David Lehman in the Wall Street Journal.

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But Dylan meets Matthew Arnold’s 1880 concept of “touchstones” (poetic lines that imprint themselves on the mind), Lehman believes. Specifically, he cites this line from 1966’s “Visions of Johanna”:

“The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face.”

Dylan’s writing eerily presaged the spoken-word movement that’s made its way into mainstream music with his 1965 “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Lehman writes:

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off

Dylan’s always thought of himself as a poet – a poet first, in fact, and a musician second.

Walter G. Moss tells a wonderful story about Dylan just showing up on the porch of 86-year-old poet and author Carl Sandburg in 1964. Sandburg was one of the most famous writers in America at the time.

“The young Dylan seems to have suffered no trepidation about knocking on this famous man’s door. ‘You’re Carl Sandburg,’ he said, ‘I’m Bob Dylan. I’m a poet, too.’ Sandburg invited Dylan and a few friends who accompanied him to sit down. Dylan told the old poet that he had often been mentioned by Woody Guthrie, the famous folk singer Dylan often visited in the hospital. He then handed Sandburg his recently released album The Times They Are A-Changin’ and told him he’d appreciate it if he listened to them. One of Dylan’s companions on that occasion later noted, ‘I distinctly felt like there was a passage of honor between the young prince and the old king.'”

Writers seemed to support Dylan’s Nobel:

“From Orpheus to Faiz, song and poetry have been closely linked,” Salman Rushdie tweeted. “Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”

Joyce Carol Oates called Dylan an “inspired and original choice. His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, ‘literary.'”

His fellow lyricists didn’t seem surprised:

Giving Dylan a Nobel is “like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain,” Leonard Cohen said.

“Congratulations to Bob Dylan on the Nobel Prize for Literature,” Robyn Hitchcock said. “He launched me and many others on oceans of which we’d never dreamed…”

Now, we get to look forward Dylan’s acceptance speech. What could he possibly say that he hasn’t said before? The newest book of his lyrics (Bob Dylan: The Lyrics 1961-2012) weighs in at 679 pages. That’s more poetry than most Americans read in a lifetime.

Somehow, I can’t see him giving a speech. He hardly says a word at his concerts, and he rarely glances at the crowd. What will he say now? It’s fun to wonder, and it’s going to be even more fun to watch.

Photo credit: Jean-Luc

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One comment to “Poets, singers, writers pipe up on Dylan’s Nobel Prize”
  1. He’s going to come to the podium and say: ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar”, mumble a thank you and then walk off the stage.

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