Friday, October 14, 2016

Reflections on Bob Dylan Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

On the one hand…I’m absolutely thrilled. It feels like an incredible affirmation of the beliefs and aesthetic that I cut my teeth on. I remember listening over and over to Dylan’s albums Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited in the late 1960s.

One of my most vivid Dylan memories is hanging out in a café in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the summer of 1970 with the temperature 125 degrees Fahrenheit (52 degrees Celsius), drinking a peach and kefir drink over ice and listening to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album again and again, since it was the only record they had.

Bob Dylan’s music was so much a part of the counterculture and radical politics of the 1960s that it feels like the Nobel Prize went to the entire movement, as if the award actually belongs in that café in Morocco or to the be-ins in Central Park with acid heads gyrating like helicopters in clothes as multicolored as reptile skins.

Dylan is the master of the kiss-off-your-old-lover song, a particular variation on the ballad that he perfected:

When we meet again
Introduced as friends
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry, and it was your world.

(“Just Like a Woman”)

He has that lovely snarl in his voice that sounds like Woody Guthrie reincarnated as a schnauzer. I think many of the best recordings of Dylan’s songs are by women, like Etta James’s rendition of “Gotta Serve Somebody” or the jazz vocalist Barbara Sfraga’s almost a capella version of “Every Grain of Sand” or Mary Travers shaking her blond Niagara while she croons “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Something about the combination of Dylan’s hard edge and the heart of a great chanteuse feels like justice to me. Has anyone  yet compiled the Women Sing Dylan anthology?

Bob Dylan freed poetry from the prison of the page. He is a modern troubadour, a true successor to the Provençal poets who roamed the hill towns of Southern France in the Middle Ages using their lutes to find rhyming forms that had never existed, even in Granada.

On the other hand…every literary prize always makes me think almost more of the writers who didn’t win or have never received that honor. What about the novelists and essayists and poets who’ve done the hard work of assembling a lifetime of work, an entire shelf of words. What has Bob Dylan written to compare to Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto and memoir Truth & Beauty, for instance; or Tawara Machi, who has remade the ancient tanka form; or Argentina’s Ana María Shua, the master of flash fiction and author of more than forty books?

Ana María Shua
Not to mention Leonard Cohen, who, like Bob Dylan, has married poetry and song lyrics in his own way, maybe with more compassion and wisdom.

In the end, isn’t the whole point of the Nobel Prize for Literature that it gets us to read writers whose work we wouldn’t know otherwise? And since we already know Dylan, every phase of his work from folk to rock to neo-country, more numerous than Picasso’s periods, what has the world gained by this award? Isn’t this a missed opportunity to introduce the community of readers to a neglected genius?


Maybe. But I still get a thrill every time I hear “Tangled Up in Blue.”

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