Bob Dylan’s Nobel



Back in the day when I was a student, some friends of mine were doing a course in the literature department where they studied the theory and practice of making anthologies, of selecting and creating a canon. The idea was to discuss theory related to anthologizing, review a number of existing anthologies, and, by the end of the course, collaboratively produce an anthology of poetry and short stories or prose passages.

Some friends of mine were doing the course, and I happened to take keen interest in it. Each member of the class was supposed to make some recommendations for the anthology, as well as ask others not in the course to send in submissions. I gladly took the opportunity to submit my recommendations for the anthology. But I did not recommend Ezra Pound or Eliot or Dorothy Parker, or Yeats, or any of the usual suspects.

My recommendations were Paul Simon and Jim Morrison, primarily. Maybe there were others too, I don’t quite remember. I do know that Bob Dylan was not among my recommendations, but when I think about it  now, I quite fail to understand how I missed recommending Bob Dylan for that anthology. Maybe it was because I had discovered Paul Simon and Jim Morrison recently, while Bob Dylan was familiar–loved, but old.

So when they announced that Bob Dylan was being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, I was surprised, and pleased. Surprised because I never expected it. I suppose no one did. But pleased because I instantly realized that this was absolutely well-deserved.

But there was another surprise too. A few people I spoke to said something like, ‘he’s obviously good..but I don’t know if his songs count as literature.’ A few comments on internet forums like Reddit and Hackernews seemed to echo the same sentiment. Are song writers literary artists?

The reaction surprised me, because songs and lyrics and verse are absolutely the primary form of literature in human history. In fact, literature was primarily all poetry for the longest time, and even then, before printing was invented, before writing was invented, we had literature, and it was either poetry, or drama.

Prose was invented much later, all things considering. It may have become the predominant form of literature today, but that does not mean the previous form–the original form–is not literature any more.

It is true that much of the popular music relies of peppy tunes, catchy rhythms, and so on. And for such music, the quality of the lyrics is not very important. In fact, there are many great songs that have almost meaningless, nonsensical lyrics. Great music, but not necessarily great poetry.

And then you have artists like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and others. Real poets. Writing about important things, in new ways. Writing verse as good as that of Whitman, or Dorothy Parker, or whatever favorite poet you might want to name.

Dylan’s work counts as poetry, and counts as literature. And his Nobel prize for literature is absolutely well-deserved.

I just want Bill Watterson to also get it one of these days.

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