Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature

Bob Dylan just won the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. Many are angry. But they’re wrong. He deserves it.

Joni Mitchel says Dylan is a fake. I take her critique with a grain of salt. Certainly Dylan is a confabulist—in a radio interview when he was 20, he claimed that he’d been “with the carnival off and on for about six years.” So a liar, yes, but not a fake. And many have called him a thief, that he freely lifted many of his lyrics from old folk songs. Sure, he’s, ahem, “borrowed” his fair share of material over the years. So what? That’s just part of the folk tradition. And, as Picasso once said, “bad artists copy, good artists steal.” Anyway, I’ll put my premise forward in two parts:

1. The writing is great

Of course you’ve heard the compaint: Dylan’s words are not poetry, they’re just song lyrics—how can lyrics be considered literature? Homer’s The Illiad is also “just song lyrics,” and we (obviously) consider it literature. The Oxford Book of American Poetry prints the lyrics to “Desolation Row” alongside Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Suppose for a second we enter a new dark age, and all of our technology is lost; a thousand years from now, an archeologist digs up the only remaining evidence of Dylan’s work, a collection of Bob Dylan lyrics. They’d quickly ascertain that, like Homer, they were meant to be sung, accompanied by music. But the music is gone, never to be heard again. Let’s take a look at some of Dylan’s words and see how they function without music, as pure poetry. Here are a few snippets; judge for yourself.

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy bench
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

—Bob Dylan – “Mr. Tambourine Man”

Of war and peace the truth just twists
Its curfew gull just glides
Upon four-legged forest clouds
The cowboy angel rides
With his candle lit into the sun
Though its glow is waxed in black
All except when ‘neath the trees of Eden

The lamppost stands with folded arms
Its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge
All and all can only fall
With a crashing but meaningless blow
No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden

—Bob Dylan – “The Gates Of Eden”

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fools gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proved to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying

—Bob Dylan – “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

You must leave now
Take what you need you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep
You better grab it fast

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out, the saints are coming through
And it’s all over now, baby blue

The highway is for gamblers
Better use your sense
Take what you have gathered
From coincidence

The empty handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, baby blue

All your seasick sailors
They are rowing home
Your empty handed army
Is all going home

Your lover, who just walked out the door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor
The carpet too, is moving under you
And it’s all over now, baby blue

Leave your stepping stones behind
Now, something that calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left
They will not follow you

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, baby blue

—Bob Dylan – “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

I could go on, but (hopefully) you get the point. All written before he was 25. There’s more that’s just as good, or even better, from previous years (I can’t help but think that any fan of poetry that says they’re not a fan of Dylan’s has not heard his first four “folkie”, pre-rock albums). And did I mention that the four lyrics quoted above are from just one side of one record?

I’d also like to speak about one verse that I love:

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

—Bob Dylan – “Tombstone Blues”

On first blush it seems like a slight pun. But Dylan’s strong point is his imagery—what makes him a poet. That last line, you hear: “The sun’s not yellow” and you immediately picture the sun in your mind’s eye—you can’t help it—and you think, “No, of course it’s yellow!” immediately followed by “it’s chicken” and you picture a chicken, and that’s yellow too, so you’re like, “Wait, a chicken’s yellow too!” and you realize he means chicken like a coward and how can the sun be cowardly and your mind is completely fucked over and the next thing you know you’re at the ER at Bellevue begging for a shot of thorazine.

In later years came what is perhaps his masterpiece, Visions of Johanna and the brilliant surrealism of The Basement Tapes (wherein Dylan invented the genre of alt-country, but that’s another story). To play devil’s advocate for a moment, I’ll admit, he’s done his share of awful writing. Frankly, he’d written 90% of his best work by 1970 (he admits as much himself in a 60 Minutes interview from 2011). Here’s his nadir, from 1979:

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say

—Bob Dylan – “Gotta Serve Somebody”

He’s quoting a lame comedian from a dumb beer commercial. Ouch. A lesson here for the kids: if you must get strung out on the Lord, don’t get strung out on dope at the same time. Look, give the man a break—the ’80s were a tough time for Dylan. But the same could be said of me, so who am I to judge? A pal of mine once told me how, around 1985, he ran into Dylan in an elevator in a Zurich hotel. The lift stopped and Dylan, shoeless, shirt unbuttoned, with long, dirty fingernails, got on and said to my friend, “Got any food?”

Others dismiss Dylan because of all the novelty songs:

Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone you just like they said they would
They’ll stone you when you’re tryna go home
Then they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone

But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned

—Bob Dylan – “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”

But, coincidentally, I was listening to an interview with Larry Clark on the Marc Maron show the other day, and Larry said that when this song came out, in 1965, and was played on the radio, it absolutely blew everybody’s minds. Even the silly songs are powerful. (And the title, at least, is brilliant, somehow.)

2. Many (most?) of the Nobel literature laureates are forgotten, unknown, or just plain terrible.

Here’s a complete list of winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. Sure, there are some greats there, especially in the early years—Knut Hamsun, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Luigi Pirandello, Thomas Mann, T.S. Elliot, William Faulkner, etc. But I don’t think I’ve heard of, much less read, half of the people on the list. Winston Churchill? Really?

You know who’s not on the list? James Joyce, Marina Tsvetaeva, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon. Some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, neglected. In other words, the Prize is about as meaningful as the Best Picture Oscar, which regularly awards really shitty pictures because they’re popular or politically correct. Dylan is, and has always been, popular, but never politically correct.

Maybe there are better poets than Dylan—and yes, he’s a poet, not just a lyricist—but nobody—nobody—has influenced more minds and souls, of artists, musicians and ordinary folk, over the last 50 years than Bob Dylan.

Welcome to the club, Robert. You’re classing up the joint.

Finally, what does Dylan think? He hasn’t commented on winning the Nobel Prize yet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Sartre, he doesn’t bother showing up to accept it. As they say in the 60 minutes interview I mentioned above, “It’s a pat on the back, Bob!” and he responds, “This week it is.”

—Bernard Meisler