As 2016 winded down, one of the many questions on the lips of many literati was if Bob Dylan was deserving of the Nobel Prize? In the article, “Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize, Redefining Boundaries of Literature” published in the New York Times, expressed many perspectives, one of which was how the debate over Bob Dylan’s lyrics as poetry is not new. It also explained how for many years, scholars have devoted time to analysing his music, especially as the musician has often “sprinkled literary allusions into his music and cited the influence of poetry on his lyrics.”
Now, despite Dylan’s unacceptance as a poet in some quarters, and with the many contentions on the literariness of his works, there’s been a group arguing for Bob Dylan as a brave poet reaching the soul of poetry in his songs. In the aforementioned article, it was mentioned that “The Oxford Book of American Poetry included his song “Desolation Row,” in its 2006 edition, and Cambridge University Press released “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” in 2009, further cementing his reputation as a brilliant literary stylist.” The article also stated that Billy Collins, the former Unites States poet laureate is quoted to have said that Mr Dylan deserves recognition not just as a songwriter, but as a poet. “Most song lyrics don’t really hold up without the music, and they aren’t supposed to,” Mr Collins said in an interview. “Bob Dylan is in the 2 percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice. I think he does qualify as poetry.”
Now, flashback to an Op-Ed written by Bill Wyman in 2013, titled, “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Nobel’s Door”, where Wyman argued that Bob Dylan should get a Nobel Prize. He wrote; “If the academy doesn’t recognise Bob Dylan — a bard who embodied the most significant cultural upheaval of the second half of the last century — it will squander its best chance to honour a pop poet.” The Nobel seemed to agree with his point of view, but it would remain one of the most controversial picks for the academy in recent times.
Then it happened, in 2016, Bob Dylan is announced as a Nobel Laureate, and the world of literature fell apart; the Dylan-deserves-the-award and Dylan-is-not-deserving-of-the-award. A war happened on the internet, with mixed reactions resulting in a cacophony of tweets, facebook posts and several spurious essays, long, short and medium, on how low the mighty Nobel Prize has fallen. Yet, those who believed the prize went to a deserving ‘writer’, included Joyce Carol Oates, who is herself a perennial Nobel choice, who was even rumoured as a likely choice for the 2016 award based on numerous betting sites went on to describe Dylan’s win as “an inspired choice.”
Ultimately, the announcement, for many in the literati, was a departure from the accepted – you know literature should be judged as books. There were also echoes of ‘imperialism’, mostly by a lot of African intelligentsia who believed the award should undeservedly have gone to the continent-wide renowned writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo. There were also writers like Feargus O’Sullivan who believed it was the Scandinavians displaying an age-long romance for America’s counterculture and in effect, they needed to award the ‘hero’ of their youth. He writes, “Recognizing Dylan as literary luminary validates a generation’s enthusiasms—and shows the world exactly what Sweden’s cultural elite really warm to.”
As for Otosirieze-Obi, in “Imperialism-in-Artistry: Bob-Dylan’s Nobel win is proof Adichie is right about Beyonce,” – he believes the award is another mental-dominance of the West via art. While one wonders how much of an unconvincing argument this is, considering that the Africa he refers to—the Africa of his generation, is fast becoming a continent where a large percentage of its poetry, desperately aligns to suit MFA programmes, American magazines, and contemporary American poetry, fighting desperately to fit in and find acceptance on social media. In any case, Obi’s argument is that awarding the prize to Dylan, confirms that “literature is of secondary relevance in a world-blessed with music…” A rather unclear statement, for what is literature to an African without music? Isn’t African literature steeped in songs, chants and a repertoire of performances? Well, then again, Otosirieze-Obi’s Africa is different it is Americanised – it is a world living under the influence of pop music from the West, finding validation from the West and earning distinction by throwing invectives without a knowledge of social history to its literary heroes, while desperately seeking to unleash itself from the shackles of apish writing. In that regards, a Nobel Prize like Bob-Dylan’s reiterates the intellectual limbo of (t)his generation.
Then again, it could be the fact that Bob Dylan is first-of-all a musician. In today’s world, a good ear is needed to distinguish the pop music where the lyrics are simplistic and banal. But let’s assume we all have good feelings of the soul-stirring lyrics of Dylan, would it once again stir the question of where to draw the line between poetry and music, which is a never-solved-problem. Or it could be that too many times, Dylan has expressed that he has a closer affinity to music even when he published his books, a collation of his many worlds, where he summarised himself as the performer of words. Unfortunately, you either are a poet or a musician in the context of the world—a fast changing world, hypertexting and lyricizing its own art. The question then remains, why would anyone give a literature prize to a man who insists he is a musician? Can one be a poet without calling himself one?
Should one follow the argument that poets, generally, being self-effacing, helps Dylan succeed in leading a double-life, one in which he does not have to hide himself, and one in which he can live to contend his authenticity, as a musician, Dylan knows to draw attention to his form, but as a poet, he’d rather cling to a recondite personality. As Wislawa Szymborska wrote in her Nobel Prize Lecture, “The Poet and the World,”
“Contemporary poets are sceptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times, it's much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they're attractively packaged, than to recognise your own merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself ... When filling in questionnaires or chatting with strangers, that is, when they can't avoid revealing their profession, poets prefer to use the general term "writer" or replace "poet" with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing.”
In one of the most popular quotes of James Joyce’s Ulysses, he wrote that the "The Supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life it springs." In essence, Bob Dylan may not write poetry as we know it, but his lyrics have profoundly influenced American literature and crossed borders to fill emotional lacunas.
Now, I am one of those that believe in oral literature, as it is all around me. I am a Yoruba woman, the literature of my culture in its oral form is alive and representative as well. A culture that sings poetry and chants its praise, so much that even names can unravel strings of metaphors. In that sense, writing only expands folk literature, it does not define it. So who says literature should be written. Wyman in his far-sighted essay, Knock…wrote, “Mr Dylan just writes pop lyrics. Actually, Mr Dylan writes, full stop. Why discount what has been written because of where it ends up.”
The American-Nigerian poet, Olu Oguibe also wrote on his Facebook page, the ambition all along for many poets is the song. The basic truth is that many poets are continually aiming to create rhythm either in sound or in images, they try to write songs. This is what the Nobel Prize Committee recognised. In an interview, he expressed that this was an aspiration;
“Music is the only thing that’s in tune with what’s happening,” he told an interviewer that summer of ’65, as he would tell others during those months. “It’s not in book form, it’s not on the stage.” And to another the following year: “I’d never written anything like [‘Rolling Stone’] before and it suddenly came to me that that was what I should do.… After writing that, I wasn’t interested in writing a novel, or a play…I wanted to write songs.… I mean, nobody’s ever really written songs before.” (Art)
For me, Bob Dylan’s music is a rich source of poetry performed as folksongs, preserving a vital part of America’s culture in everyday language. As Jon Pareles writes "As much as any literary figure to emerge in the 20th century, he has written words that resonate everywhere: quoted by revolutionaries and presidents, hurled by protesters, studied by scholars and taken to heart in countless private moments."
And for anyone to assume as Obi wrote, that “the writing life of loneliness and sweat and hard work that doesn’t always pay off…” is to imply that Dylan woke up with his songs ready and with a now creative process to it. This in itself is artistic bigotry, which undermines the argument that writing has lesser patronage than the other art forms like “music, acting and sports,” as he writes.
Of course, there are many writers who would always deserve the Nobel and many of them would not get it, just like some of the world’s greatest writers did not. Writers like Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Chinua Achebe and several others.
The other argument that Bob Dylan would not need the money brings further demotion to the art of our beloved writers. Some believe the award was more of a waste. Why didn’t the Nobel Committee think of Ngugi wa Thiongo? While the betting sites might play up hopes year-in-year-out, but Ngugi stands on the pulpit of a deserving recognition, not a clamour for a desperate Africans literati, singling out the Nobel as the institution to determine our honour roll call.
Ngugi is a worthy man. He is a cultural representation and so be it. The prize money would do a lot, but we must not turn our man of honour into a dishonour, by limiting his worth into one deserving only of pecuniary compensation. The African literati should not ‘need’ an award for a writer of Ngugi’s stature, he should deserve it. Ngugi deserves the honour, not compensation. It is important to state categorically, that a man like Ngugi is no less a god with or without a Nobel Prize. He stands as a reminder of what it means to be a living legend.
Let’s also remember that Alfred Nobel asked the prize should be given “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” – interpret this as a work which has character of place and identity, a work which has ‘built’ and created and inspired and remodelled himself outside the context of the usual.
While, many may now choose to ignore it, Dylan has long ago been seen as a poet singing his lines, and academics – many who cried foul and departure to the written muse, know of colleagues, or have even taught Dylan in their class. In conversation with Professor Nduka Otiono, he expressed that Mr Dylan’s work was admirable for him, for its “poetic breath” and this led him to teach him as a poet in an undergraduate class” in his university in Canada. The internet also carried a story of Professor Richard F. Thomas, who teaches his students Dylan, putting him in the context of Homer and Virgil.'
One thing is constant, Bob Dylan was influenced by literature and he has influenced literature. He has been more of a bardic poet, offering his poetry into the depths of millions of minds. He wasn’t awarded a prize for this written books, he was awarded a prize for the poetry in his songs. "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition".
Today, we read a lot of poetry that are in a battle with themselves--finding meaning, lacking soul and shifting shapes to fit into literary magazines and social media likes, I think tThe Nobel Committee this time reminded us, that indeed the aspiration, was the song.