The recent decision by the Swedish Nobel Committee to award the 2016 prize for literature to Bob Dylan has not been uncontroversial. Cries of anguish have come from all sides, lamenting generally that this decision is one more nail in the coffin of a literary culture that demands quiet, thoughtful attention but is now mortally threatened by the constant disruptions of the smartphone and the tweet.
It is clear that individual Dylan lyrics don’t hold up as poetry, if by “poetry” we have in mind tightly constructed webs of condensed meaning that lend themselves to multiple readings and elicit ongoing interpretive conversations. Next to Milton’s “Lycidas,” Dylan’s “He Was a Friend of Mine” just can’t compete.
Dylan’s literary approach
However, it is no less the case that Dylan’s approach to writing has always been literary, in the largest sense. By this I mean that his songs dig into the very material of literature, reordering it and transforming the means of expression, questioning not only what we experience, but how we organize that experience.
He doesn’t merely say new things, he challenges the medium through which he says them. For every political song based on a slogan, there are two that ask us why slogans have to shape our politics. Formally, the songs don’t only borrow earlier structures and conventions (the blues, the ballad, etc.) they work dialectically against them. “Tangled Up in Blue” (1974) for instance, is a sequence of sonnets disguised as a ballad. In its form, it pulls against both traditions.
And no less than Dante’s or Eliot’s, Dylan’s compositions are a tissue of quotations, not only from other songs, but from poems, films and novels. Literature constantly rewrites other literature, nowhere more so than here. Thus in “Summer Days” (2005), we meet an aging narrator, desperate for his lost youth, who tries to console himself by murmuring a quote from The Great Gatsby, “What do you mean you can’t repeat the past, of course you can!”
Generic conventions are absorbed and reworked. “Dignity” (1994) borrows the setting and plot of the hard-boiled detective novel, offering a narrative of pursuit and evasion through a neon-lit landscape, yet peppered with quotations from the letters of St. Paul. “Blind Willie McTell” (1983) rewrites United States history as a mini-epic, complete with a blind Homeric narrator, the blues singer McTell, who alone can tell the truth about our history. “Brownsville Girl” (1994) is a tale of lost love that draws on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, yet blends that beatnik chronicle with the plot of a Western movie, generating a multi-layered post-modern fable in which fiction and history become indistinguishable. And “Jokerman” (1983) recalls the lyrics of Yeats and Auden in its anguished account of the limits of poetry in the face of political catastrophe.
As we wander across Dylan’s vast body of work, beyond the handful of songs that are best known to the casual listener, we find techniques and themes that take us far beyond anything previously seen in popular song. However great they are in other ways, Cole Porter and Chuck Berry are simply working on a different level.
A profoundly democratic vision
For me, what stands out in Dylan’s work is his ability to inhabit and evoke the experience of a broad range of characters, from the heroic to the ridiculous. Whereas Dylan’s great predecessor Walt Whitman soared grandly across an entire cosmos of social types (“The young mother and old mother shall comprehend me,/ The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment/They and all would resume what I have told them”), Dylan limits himself to the opacity and density of individual experience. He doesn’t tell a story. He tells stories. In this regard his vision is profoundly democratic. Everyone matters.
Dylan’s most enduring work draws its power from the minute detail with which he sketches the realities in which his characters – good and bad – move and try to find their ways. We might think here of the oppressed maid Hattie Carroll, whose job is to “pick up the ashtrays” at a party where she is beaten by her racist employer (in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” from 1962); or of the self-delusion of the hero of “Isis” (1976), who stops off one day to wash his clothes, gets lured into a crazy expedition in search of buried treasure, and barely comes back alive.
More recently, we could point to the unemployed small-town laborer of “Workingman’s Blues #2,” (2006) who demonstrates Dylan’s startling relevance to the present political season when he sings, “The place I love best is just a sweet memory/It’s a new path that we’ve trod./They say low wages are reality/ If we want to compete abroad.” With marvelous power Dylan can hear and speak for the disenfranchised working man, who repeats with resignation what “they say” while lamenting the loss of his world. Dylan’s imaginative power to hear the voices of such characters, whom he neither judges nor sentimentalizes, is at the heart of his genius and, for lack of a better word, his humanism. This is what poetry can do that no other art can do – make us see, in a flash of insight, what others see. It is what makes literature the most subversive and most essential of arts.
Sparking student creativity
Off and on over the past several years, I have been teaching a Freshman Seminar on Bob Dylan and the French poet Arthur Rimbaud called “Poetry and the Senses.” The work of the course tends to surprise the students. They sign up thinking it’s all going to be about Dylan, and find themselves face to face with the difficult, oblique poems of the great modernist Rimbaud, who was one of Dylan’s greatest inspirations.
I have learned extraordinary things about poetry, both Dylan’s and Rimbaud’s, from listening to my students’ conversations about them. One of the most rewarding features of the course has been the range of projects that students have produced from their readings of these two writers. Dylan’s creative rewriting of tradition seems to inspire interesting work from students. We’ve seen videos, heard original songs (of course), written critical studies of the art of pastiche, penned prose poems about Dylan in the style of his idol Rimbaud, and songs about Rimbaud in the style of Dylan.
I think my favorite project was a rambling composition by one of the students who took one of Dylan’s most enigmatic songs, the laconic “All Along the Watchtower” (1968), and repurposed it by embedding it in a longer lyric of his own that provided a narrative frame, explained who the characters were, how they got there, what they were thinking. This was an original piece of creative work that was also a piece of literary criticism. It cut across the boundary between creative writing and analysis.
If Dylan can spark this kind of class work, he must be doing something right. As a scholar of literature, I’m still not sure what to make of the Nobel. But speaking as a teacher, I say, “Give that man a prize!”