When the secretary of the Swedish Academy announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in literature, my first thought was, “That’s the strangest pronunciation of ‘Don DeLillo’ I’ve ever heard.”
Though Dylan was long rumored to be a contender for the Nobel, the possibility had attained a kind of mythical, some might say comic, status. And after waiting 23 years for an American to win the literature prize — Toni Morrison was our last one — wouldn’t the Swedes finally recognize DeLillo or Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates? You know, people who actually write literature?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
A good case can be made — has been made many times — for the literary value of Dylan’s lyrics. Indeed, the Swedish Academy secretary, Sara Danius, placed his work in a long tradition that stretches back to Homer and Sappho.
And if there are any doubts about Dylan’s right to be categorized as a real poet, they’re not shared by America’s other greatest poets, who reacted to Thursday’s news with enthusiasm when contacted by The Washington Post:
Edward Hirsch: “I think it is a remarkable, category-bending choice. Bob Dylan’s work is certainly not ‘literature’ as we usually think about it, but the way his lyrics sing, his poetry in performance, has given us a summary of our times that promises to endure. I’d call it poetry in song.”
Billy Collins: “Can song lyrics qualify as poetry? The real acid test demands that the lyrics hold up without the music, just the words on a piece of paper. That’s how poems come to us, after all. Ninety-nine percent of song lyrics fail the test, even though the songs themselves may be terrific. Dylan is the rare exception; for decades, he has gotten one of the very few A’s.”
Rita Dove: “Bob Dylan is an inspired choice. It harkens back to the days of antiquity when the bard spoke/sang to the community accompanied by a lyre.”
Juan Felipe Herrera: “With my six-string, black-and-gold Stella, in high school, I howled along to Dylan’s ‘The Times They are A-Changin’,’ ‘Masters of War,’ and wrote songs and poems as I listened closely to ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ about segregation and the assassination of Medgar Evers, a great civil rights activist. Dylan was a key force for our generation, a torchbearer with a guitar, half-torn voice and a harmonica that blistered out our desires for a new time to be strummed with relentless peace, protest and freedom.”
August Kleinzahler: “I welcome the news of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. Such is the brilliance of some of his earlier work — say from ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’ to ‘John Wesley Harding’ — that he transcends the boundaries of any musical genre, such as folk singer. But he is, at root, a folk artist, not a ‘poet’ — and his song lyrics don’t really work very well on the page sans music. And in this, I believe he resembles Cole Porter, another, very different kind of American musical genius. Cole Porter, too, deserved a Nobel. Perhaps now the conversation can begin in earnest about our traditional notions of what constitutes ‘high’ art versus ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ art in general and their respective cultural ‘value’ as such. Who but Bob Dylan could have brought us to this pass?”
Nick Flynn: “Dylan became Dylan by absorbing all the poetry around him and all that came before, and he continues to transform it.”
Mary Karr: “Poetry is lucky to finally get Bob Dylan in its ken. He pushed the limits of the English language, and he worked beyond the bounds of propriety, and he disturbed and comforted us as much as any poet ever has. The art form started in music, and the fact that his poems involved guitars and the occasional harmonica can’t dilute their artistry. Bravo to this bold outlaw for getting the ultimate laurel branch laid on his teeming head.”
Terrance Hayes: “I’m not surprised Dylan was finally honored this way. It’s been a possibility for years. But I don’t know how much changes in the world because he’s been given the prize. His influence and indeed his talent have long been acknowledged the world over. I’ve never thought of the prize as having a mainstream dimension. Now that this has happened, I ask why not Joni Mitchell some day? Or Stevie Wonder? Why not Chuck D or Tom Waits? Will we see other equal or superior poetic songwriters/musical poets down the road?”
Yusef Komunyakaa: “One should not be surprised that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for his enduring body of work that is fiercely beautiful and political, still summoning needful spirit of the ’60s and ’70s. His jagged lyricism challenges us across the decades. Simply, there’s no other songwriter like him — gritty and surreal, literary and bluesy. Yes, ‘masters of war,’ you can’t hide from the knife-edge clarity of Dylan’s words still cutting to the quick, always in search of abiding harmony through naked inquiry that leaves blood at the roots. He has never been afraid to hone new metaphors for us citizens of a troubled world.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.