Dy­lan the bard

Does he de­serve the No­bel?

The Week Middle East - - Front Page -

Pre­dictably enough, Bob Dy­lan him­self has not said a word. As he trav­els the world on his never-end­ing tour, the singer­song­writer rarely gives a straight an­swer to the ques­tion that he fa­mously posed: “How does it feel?” But on so­cial me­dia, oth­ers jos­tled to ex­press their feel­ings about the 75-year-old be­com­ing the first Amer­i­can re­cip­i­ent of the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture since Toni Mor­ri­son in 1993 – and some were not happy. Joanne Har­ris, the writer of the novel Choco­lat, ques­tioned the el­i­gi­b­lity of a “back cat­a­logue of song lyrics” for a ma­jor lit­er­ary prize, and said she looked for­ward to her Grammy; while the Le­banese au­thor Rabih Alamed­dine tweeted that it was like “Mrs Fields [a snack food brand] win­ning 3 Miche­lin stars”. Don’t get me wrong, said Bi­jan Stephen on Vice. Dy­lan is a great song­writer, a leg­end. But a great poet? No. Song­writ­ing and po­etry, while they have sim­i­lar­i­ties – me­tre, rhythm, etc – are “dif­fer­ent arts”. And read as verse, most of his work is ter­ri­ble. As the critic Ellen Wil­lis wrote in 1967, he per­pe­trates, along with his lav­ish ver­bal imag­i­na­tion and bril­liant sense of irony, “tan­gled phrases”, “silly metaphors” and “mud­dled thought”. Even his mas­ter­piece Like a Rolling Stone (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”) is heav­ily re­liant on a ba­sic rhyme struc­ture, said Luke Slat­tery in The Aus­tralian. And while “the al­lu­sions are in­ven­tive”, var­ied and in­trigu­ing, they’re lit­tle more than a “piece of sus­tained vi­tu­per­a­tion”. The lyrics don’t stand alone as “en­dur­ing lit­er­a­ture”; they need the mu­sic – the “rock rhythm and surg­ing or­gan riff” – to be­come art. But Dy­lan wasn’t hon­oured as a poet, said Bryan Ap­p­le­yard in The Sun­day Times. He was hon­oured for cre­at­ing “new po­etic tra­di­tions within the great Amer­i­can song­writ­ing tra­di­tion”; in other words, for be­ing an out­stand­ing song­writer. Clearly, some be­lieve the No­bel Com­mit­tee made a “cat­e­gory er­ror”: if it’s not po­etry or fic­tion, it is not lit­er­a­ture. Yet last year’s win­ner was a jour­nal­ist. Be­sides, why shouldn’t new forms be em­braced? (If in­deed they are new: Homer was writ­ing texts in­tended to be heard not read mil­len­nia ago.) If the hall­mark of ge­nius is “cre­ative im­men­sity, the abil­ity to ab­sorb and con­tain mul­ti­tudes”, Dy­lan qual­i­fies, said The New York Times. He started out as a folk artist, but folk could not con­tain him. Over 50 years he has drawn on myr­iad styles, al­ways adding his “strange and in­ex­pli­ca­ble Dy­lan thing”, to build a body of work that, “in its breadth and beauty”, achieves true great­ness.

Dy­lan: the wrong prize?

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