Learning with Bob Dylan

Thanks to the Nobel Prize, we are forced to re-examine the genius of the man, and the literary scope of ‘poetic expressions’

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:50 pm IST

Published - October 16, 2016 12:59 am IST

LEGEND: “Bob Dylan is the greatest creator of songs in human history, if volume, influence, innovation and longevity are prime factors.” File photo of Dylan performing in Paddock Wood, Kent, in 2012.

LEGEND: “Bob Dylan is the greatest creator of songs in human history, if volume, influence, innovation and longevity are prime factors.” File photo of Dylan performing in Paddock Wood, Kent, in 2012.

It’s interesting to see so many people care about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, people who otherwise never seem to have engaged with his work or have had scant respect for him; it’s as if this suddenly validates him as an artist in their eyes.

And of course, there are people who are trashing this choice and wondering if this opens the door for lyricists to win the most prestigious literary prize in the world (“What, even Anand Bakshi is eligible now?” being the most memorable query on that front).

Meanwhile, fans of Haruki Murukami, Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera and PhilipRoth are dismayed, and Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh postulates that this is an “ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Fair points, no doubt.

But let’s collate. In 2004, when St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland, bestowed an honorary degree on Dylan (his second, after the one from Princeton University in 1970), he was asked on stage what his songs were about. Dylan dead-panned: “Some of them are about three minutes and some are about five minutes.” This sits neatly with a famous 1965 interview moment where, in answer to the question, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?” he replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” The consistency of thought over the decades reveals a great deal about how Dylan sees himself and his art.

Mythologising lyrics Dylan is the greatest creator of songs in human history, if volume, influence, innovation and longevity are prime factors. There is little to argue about there. (But some still do, and I envy them for the time they have on their hands.) But —and this is the relevant departure here — this is not because of his lyrics.

Song lyrics are not meant to be poetry; they may have a lot in common with poetry but fundamentally, the two are different art forms. Otherwise, what stops the finest musicians of our age from teaming up with the greatest contemporary poets and producing unalloyed masterpieces? Has it happened even once in popular music? And if Dylan were primarily a lyrics-writer — like, say, Robert Hunter or Bernie Taupin — do you honestly believe his words would have had anywhere near the same impact? Finally, how many people do you know who read Dylan purely as poetry, as text?

Bob Dylan’s greatness as a songwriter is about how he expressed himself through song. This is self-evident really: that searing sensibility crackling through the ether, where the power of his harmonica complemented that uniquely straining voice delivering those words while guitar chords lurked beneath. Those words are less notable as autonomous poetry than as navigation points for the song as a whole, rhythmically and thematically (a very significant and noticeable role). This may seem blasphemous, but many of his famous lines could easily perhaps be interchanged with others, and no one would really miss them, given the weight of that sensibility, if the familiar words were not lodged in listeners’ heads. It’s not the words themselves that are indispensable; in song, their power lies elsewhere.

There is no doubt that Dylan redefined the scope of the popular song with his own influences: classicist poetry at first, then the Beats and the symbolists (ArthurRimbaud remained a big influence for a long time) in a manner no one has done. And sure, his lyrical expressions often led the way in his own process, but that is as significant to his listeners as whatever else may have inspired him: his Muse or the light falling on the wall or his favourite cushion.

Scholars of all hues have compared Dylan’s lyrics with poetry in the past, with John Keats, WilliamBlake, T.S. Eliot and the Ancient Greeks, most notably the former professor of poetry at Oxford University, Christopher Ricks, in his 2003 book Dylan’s Visions of Sin . It has never been a particularly well-received argument (it is amusing to see indigenous versions of that, with wholly borrowed ideas, proliferate now in the Indian media) because it was devoid of the big picture.

In The New Yorker there is a piece on Leonard Cohen by David Remnick (“Leonard Cohen makes it darker”, October 17, 2016 issue), in which Dylan is quoted as saying, “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius.” It is a pity not enough people talk about Dylan in that context; there is much, much more to speak of here. (Though Bruce Springsteen did say something very similar about Dylan just last month while promoting his book Born To Run .)

Melody as the mainstay Dylan’s significance has to be seen in that context. The BBC announced that the ‘folk singer’ had won the Nobel Prize, but Dylan was a folk singer only till early 1965. Most people only seem to remember lyrics from that fledgling part of his career as an artist. Some may remember his seminal folk-rock phase, but how many quote lyrics from his post-accident phase? From his country-rock, confessional, born-again or 1980s phases? Or after he crossed middleage and wrote some of the greatest songs on mortality? There are too many people who claim to be Dylan fans but who haven’t heard his music post-1975 and have no interest in doing so. I’d just submit here that anyone who does not enjoy 2012’s “Tempest” or, indeed, the best music from his later years, is not really a Dylan fan because he or she hasn’t travelled with that unique sensibility and gone into places no one else can take you. They are fans of a kind of nostalgia or the literary quality that Dylan provided in the 1960s or 1970s, but they are not really Bob Dylan fans.

This is where this prize starts making sense. The Nobel citation specifically praises Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It does not mention lyrics or words but poetic expressions, which is what songwriting is. Dylan used words prominently (but, again, not merely for poetic meaning) to transform an entire art form, not once but several times, and produced some of the greatest songs in history, dozens of which have not dated or stopped influencing other artists. By honouring this quality, the scope of the Nobel Prize inLiterature has actually been expanded. Which is not a bad thing in these rapidly changing multimedia times, is it?

With all the criticism pouring in about the prize, this feels like 1965 all over again, when Dylan plugged in his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival to boos and a famously disapproving Pete Seeger. It’s just another paradigm shift by Bob Dylan.

Personally, while it is irritating for me that Dylan will now be more associated with lyrics than ever before, at least it is satisfying to see him soar over all his peers, comprehensively and definitively.

No musician is winning this prize again any time soon as no one else has transcended his or her medium quite like Dylan.

Jaideep Varma is a writer and filmmaker.

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