This year’s Nobel Prize in Literature went to Bob Dylan. In this essay Sonja Pyykkö approaches the internet storm that followed. Her stance is refreshing.
After hearing what I have to say, you may or may not think of me as a culturally illiterate turd of a human being. Still, I’m going to confess something:
I’ve never listened to Bob Dylan’s music. That isn’t to say that I’ve never heard any of his songs, sure I have, in all likelihood, I’m not deaf and I wasn’t raised by the Amish. I just can’t remember ever listening to a Dylan song knowingly. In fact, if I was held at gunpoint, and the only way to save myself was to hum, sing, or tap dance to one of his songs, I would likely perish.*
I know, it’s lame. Confessing not to like or even know Dylan’s music is like confessing you’ve never heard of the Beatles. But hear me out. In the wake of good-ole Bob winning the Nobel Prize in Literature this week, I believe that this shameful fact gives me an advantage compared to most Dylan-humming human beings, trapped by their memories of the master singer-songwriter’s greatest melodies.
After the prize was announced, our very own public arena, social media, was filled with voices either defending or denouncing the Swedish Academy’s choice. It quickly became important to choose your side in the debate called Whether-or-Not-Bob-Dylan-Should-Have-Been-Awarded-the-Nobel-Prize-in-Literature.
As the articles are commonly titled either “Why Bob Dylan Deserves His Nobel” or “Why Bob Dylan Doesn’t Deserve His Nobel”, I’ve decided to call the two feuding tribes “The Deserveds” and “The Notdeserveds”. The former’s troops include several authors, influential journalists, and cultural critics, like the previous American to win a Nobel in Literature, author of Beloved, Toni Morrison, whose works are Literary Masterpieces about Very Heavy Topics, most notably slavery. Their rival tribe, The Notdeserveds, include several authors, influential journalists, and cultural critics, like the author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, whose works are Cult Classics about Very Heavy Topics, most notably heroin addiction. (To compensate for my earlier shortcomings and assure you that my cultural unknowledgeability doesn’t apply to literature, let me just mention here that I’ve read most if not all of what either one of them has ever written.)
Long story short, The Deserveds and The Notdeserveds have fallen down a rabbit hole, where they started round 35 000 of the age-old debate called “What is Literature?”, a close relative to the also very popular “What is Art?” -feud. Popular weapons in The Deserveds camp include emphasising the Oral Tradition of Literature, and comparing Dylan to a bard, if not The Bard (see what I did there, not such a hopeless know-nothing any more, right? RIGHT?) On the other side, The Notdeserveds emphasise the Independence of Poetry, saying that Rock Lyrics are, however sophisticated, still mere serfs to their master, Rock Music.
I just can’t remember ever listening to a Dylan song knowingly.
And this brings me back to having an advantage compared to what seems like the rest of the world today. To see whether The Notdeserveds have any truth in their claim, I Googled the lyrics to “Visions of Johanna”, one of the most popular battle axes amongst The Deserveds. My head being empty of the (I’m sure) divine melody to which these words were originally set, I’ll need to rely on the words, and the words alone to convince me of their divinity. Because surely no-one is suggesting that Dylan won the Nobel in Literature for his melodies? Surely that would be as insane as being made Plumber of the Year for one’s accomplishments in gardening?
First thing I noticed when reading this poem called “Visions of Johanna” is how long it is. I read the first stanza and by the time I was mid-way to the second stanza, I was already exhausted.
The poem is made of six stanzas that alternate between nine and ten lines each, except for the penultimate stanza, which is a mere four lines long. The rhyme patterns also vary a bit, though it seems more random than structural. The first stanza is AAABBBBCC, the second AABCDEDDFF, and so on, the last one being ABBBBBBBCC.
I soon lose interest in the rhyme patterns.
The rhymes themselves vary from the conventional (loft-cough-soft) to the purposefully naïve (frieze-sneeze-Jeez-knees). Still, nothing new or interesting. Dylan is not a Nobel Laureate for his formal experimentalism then.
Another favourite of The Deserveds is to refer to the “literariness” of Dylan’s lyrics. Many of them seem to confuse poetic allusion with name-dropping. But because I am open-minded, I won’t let this stand in my way. I find that Dylan is indeed capable of allusion while he is also just throwing around names like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Dylan seems to be reminding those of us who’ve read enough to notice it, that it is not Bob Dylan speaking in his poem/songs, but a construct – an “I” who only exists in the world of the poem/song
In “Visions of Johanna”, there’s an obvious allusion to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in the third stanza’s “little boy lost”. The same stanza also packs a much more elusive allusion to the aforementioned Eliot: “Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall/Oh, how can I explain?” may be a nod to Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. It seems to refer simultaneously to the interceding “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo”, and the recurring, hesitant theme of “Then how should I begin/And how should I presume”. The allusion does lend a certain depth to “Visions of Johanna”, calling attention to its artificiality, and the “constructedness” of the “I” speaking in the poem. By the allusion, Dylan seems to be reminding those of us who’ve read enough to notice it, that it is not Bob Dylan speaking in his poem/songs, but a construct – an “I” who only exists in the world of the poem/song. It is clever and sophisticated, in fact probably the most sophisticated pop song I’ve heard/read. But worth a Nobel?
Looking at the reasons given by the Swedish Academy, one thing catches my eye. According to the Academy, Dylan’s award is given for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. To get the full meaning of this sentence, read it again, this time emphasising the words “within the great American song tradition” instead of the “having created new poetic expressions”. This means that basically Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for taking what has been done in literature over and over again throughout the 20th century, and applying it to popular music.
That’s not like being made Plumber of the Year for one’s achievements in gardening. It’s like being made Plumber of the Year for placing a sink in the garden.
* In the course of writing this text, I tested this hypothesis, and noticed that yes, were I allowed to use Google in this fictitious death-by-firing-squad ordeal, I might be able to save my life by performing a very short version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” or an extremely reluctant “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.
Sonja Pyykkö’s previous articles: