Provisional Notes on Dylan

Parsa Sanjana Sajid

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1.
The Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I would’ve been less surprised if Dylan had won the Nobel Peace Prize, not because I’m convinced of his bona fides as a peacemaker, but when the other awardees are Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, and many others whose “peace” credentials are non-existent, a debatable track record seems like an upgrade. Bob Dylan as a Nobel Peace Laureate would’ve been perfectly adequate, if you consider a microcredit entrepreneur a non-controversial Peace awardee.

2.
Awards, any awards, are tricky. To judge whether somebody or something is deserving or worthy of any prize is a fool’s job. But then recognitions and awards aren’t entirely meaningless either. If they invest an absolute, objective value to an endeavor where there can’t be any, especially in a category such as literature – after all, how does one say winner x is the best above all other contenders – it is more to express an admiration for a corpus, well lived and loved.

3.
Yet rankings seem inescapable. Even when these rankings rest on some reasonable measures and expectations of excellence, we’re none the wiser when we probe excellence or reasonableness. Or even admiration and popularity. Within the narrative of an award, these markers – excellence, admiration, popularity – express contingencies of time and politics above all. If the Nobel committee wanted to give the lit prize to an American, I can think of a handful of others who’d fit the description. If they wanted to blow apart the category and fracture our assumptions of what’s highbrow or literary, and here I support them, then a white man is the least ambitious and imaginative of choices.

4.
That said the Swedish Academy’s sin isn’t the category but the candidate. Its sense of hip to the times is so limited it smells of an old box of photos you inherited and might as well throw away. When Joan Baez sang, “You who are so good with words, and keeping things vague,” she wasn’t entirely wrong. Dylan is competent enough and even good at times but there’s a put-upon quality to his words:4 “Down the street the dogs are barkin’ / And the day is a-getting’ dark / As the night comes in a-fallin.’” The folksiness doesn’t give you so much a sugar rush as it forces a clamminess of the senses: “Oh, how can, how can you ask me again / It only brings me sorrow / The same thing I want from you today / I would want again tomorrow.” An odd aloofness weighs on them, specificities where they exist feel cornball: “Our captain he is dead, Pretty Peggy-O / Well, our captain he is dead, died for a maid / He’s buried somewhere in Louisiana-O.”

When I’ve found Dylan emotionally resonant (Masters of War), the words realized their magnificence through Odetta:5 “Let me ask you one question / Is your money that good / Will it buy you forgiveness / Do you think that it could.” In Odetta’s delivery “will it buy you forgiveness” quivers and appeals and perturbs where Dylan never could. But what is it really that I’m chafing against in Dylan? It’s an American sentimentality, that white man sentimentality of Girl from the North Country Fair or Mr. Tambourine Man or Desolation Row that I’ve never found appealing. There’s a simplicity to them that can be enjoyed in short bursts but Baez did it better with cutting simplicity when she revealed him as a negger – “My poetry was lousy you said” – and that poetry has more heart than Dylan’s.

5.
Since the announcement, we’ve been subjected to discussions of whether music lyrics are literature and whether song writing is a poetic or literary pursuit. And I want to be emphatic that they are; they aren’t inferior in any way since writing is what’s at stake and under consideration here. In many literary traditions lyric and verse writing stand on level ground and meld into each other. Urdu ghazals are at once poetry and music, their emotional depth heightened through musical renditions. And in the Nobel literature tradition Dylan isn’t even the first songwriter to have won the award. The Bengali poet and prodigious songwriter Rabindranath Tagore won the Prize in 1913.6

Arbiters of highbrow culture take a particular kind of pleasure in exclusivity – the more rarefied a cultural offering can be – the more valued. To them, mass enjoyment is supposedly cheapening because mass participation and conversation reduces value. But many types of literary offerings thrive on conversations. For Urdu shayaris, mehfils not only enliven but also often complete the symphony. There’s no good reason why popular song writing shouldn’t be a literary project like any other and the snickering only exposes a small mindedness that’s unaware of diverse and multitudinous literary traditions.

6.
On the day of the award, I told a friend over dinner that the Swedish Academy must be trolling. And a few hours afterwards I read this, an imagining of how Americans would write about a winner from another country (if Dylan were from another country), a lighthearted ribbing that nonetheless revealed a provincialism we usually assign to everybody else but us. In that light, the credit “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” puts Americana in its place. The Academy doesn’t use neutral language usually reserved for dominant traditions, but the great American song tradition. It’s a narrowing, reductive move. Which is usually how literature from other places gets tagged – South Asian literature, African literature, Chinese literature. Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry won him the Prize in 2011 “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” Pointedly, there’s no mention of a Swedish tradition. With Dylan Americana gets the other treatment and I ain’t mad at the trolling.

7.
There are indeed great American song traditions that defy provincialism but express a fluent rootedness, for example, hip-hop. From Dylan’s contemporaries Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell are better songwriters. On the other hand, it’s delightful that as of this writing he hasn’t shown any interest in the Prize.

8.
Read Ellen Willis on Dylan.

[Image Credit: Amber Avalona via Pixabay]

 

  1. He simply doesn’t have the range and his singing voice is unendurable.
  2. Call it serendipity or a blessing but when I moved to New York in 2006 it was in the same building where Odetta still lived.
  3. Tagore won for his poetry collection, Gitanjali. But his song writing credentials had been established by then. As an aside, I am also not a Tagore devotee.
  4. He simply doesn’t have the range and his singing voice is unendurable.
  5. Call it serendipity or a blessing but when I moved to New York in 2006 it was in the same building where Odetta still lived.
  6. Tagore won for his poetry collection, Gitanjali. But his song writing credentials had been established by then. As an aside, I am also not a Tagore devotee.
  7. He simply doesn’t have the range and his singing voice is unendurable.
  8. Call it serendipity or a blessing but when I moved to New York in 2006 it was in the same building where Odetta still lived.
  9. Tagore won for his poetry collection, Gitanjali. But his song writing credentials had been established by then. As an aside, I am also not a Tagore devotee.