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The Nobel goes to Bob Dylan

Amitabha Bagchi |

This has been a year of many major surprises. First, Britain chose to leave the European Union (Brexit) through a referendum. Then Donald Trump proved most pollsters wrong and won the election for the US Presidency. In between these two stunners came another huge surprise when the Nobel committee confounded all and conferred the year’s prize for literature on the American singer and songwriter, Bob Dylan.

The literary world was immediately awash in duelling opinions and spirited controversy. Americans who were starved of a literature Nobel prize in over two decades were nonplussed: how to react to the elevation of a lyricist to a major, Nobel-laureate poet? People outside of the US, and especially in the developing world, noted with disappointment the persistent reluctance of the Nobel committee to look “East of Suez” for an appropriate honoree. And on a personal level, I revisited a thought I have had for quite a while but been hesitant to bring up in polite company: is Bob Dylan the American counterpart to Tagore the lyricist of Rabindrasangeet?

The American literati had felt slighted as a group for being overlooked by the selectors of the literature prize for more than twenty years – since 1993, in fact, when Toni Morrison last won it. Their annoyance and peeve would find expression in occasional sniping and snide comments directed at the Nobel committee. There was pervasive disappointment that John Updike (1932 – 2009) did not win the prize, and an annual expectation of the award going to Philip Roth (1933 -) and more recently, to Don DeLillo (1936 -). Still the initial reaction to the award going to Bob Dylan was one of shock and bewilderment.

On one side were arrayed those whom I would call the purists. They had difficulty imagining Dylan as the worthy successor to TS Eliot (who was born in America), Ezra Pound and even maybe Allen Ginsberg. The issue ultimately was whether lyrics written for music should (or can) be elevated to the level of poetry and literature. Writing in the Editorial Notebook of the New York Times, Anna North was blunt. “Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature,” she wrote. “He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honour a writer.” And then there was this caustic post on Twitter: “If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize for literature then I think @Stephen King should get elected to the Rock N’ Roll hall of fame.”

But Dylan had supporters aplenty for his honour too, with literary figures having a more expansive view of the definition of a writer solidly in his corner. Joyce Carol Oats called the award “an inspired and original choice. His (Dylan’s) music and lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, ‘literary.’” Salman Rushdie was more effusive. “From Orpheus to Faiz song and poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice #Nobel.” Others saw elements of Walt Whitman’s poetry and mood reflected in Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

I grappled in my younger days with the question of whether writers of lyrics for songs should be elevated to the rank of full-blown poets. I was unsure of where to place Broadway luminaries like Alan Jay Lerner and Oscar Hammerstein II, or their contemporaneous, celebrity Indian lyricists like Gouri Prasanna Majumdar and Sahir Ludhianvi, in the pantheon of poets. My bias was clear, but there was an obvious counter-example: Rabindranath Tagore was both a writer of profound and transcendent poems and the creator of deeply moving lyrics of songs. He had numerous contemporaries, most notably Nazrul Islam, who straddled the two universes as well.

For a while I tried to reason that Tagore’s long poems that were not typically set to music were more literary and insightful than his far shorter lyrics for songs. In fact, I got into a serious argument once with a friend when I declared that  Sonar Tari and Africa —  just to take two examples of Tagore poems not set to music —  were unquestionably superior as poetry to his lyrics meant for songs. But my friend countered with a simple question: what would you say if someone set those to music? I did not have a ready answer. The argument was somewhat counter-factual and belonged in the realm of suppositions, but  Sonar Tari, with its gorgeous alliterations and lyrical cadence, would not cease to be a superior poem if someone perchance decided to set it to music and sing.

So my opinion was beginning to soften and become more tolerant when I came across Bob Dylan and his music. I never found his voice appealing in its tonality, but boy, were the lyrics gorgeous! Dylan wrote poetry that was often complex and set them to songs. From “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin

to “Just Like a Woman” and “Lay Lady Lay,” he sang songs that covered myriad emotions and was, although numerically smaller, almost Tagorean in range and scope. I began to wonder if it would be fair to consider him to be Tagore’s counterpart in American music.

Little did I imagine then that Dylan would one day follow Tagore and himself become a Nobel laureate in literature. The Nobel committee, in announcing the prize, cited him for creating “new poetic expressions in the great American song tradition.” In a subsequent interview, the committee’s secretary went farther and harked back to Homer and Sappho as poets to be both read and listened to — often with music  —  and by comparison put Dylan squarely in what Rushdie called “the bardic tradition.”

India of course has a bardic tradition of long standing. Ramayana describes how Lava and Kusha, raised by Sita in Rishi Valmiki’s hermitage, came to Rama’s royal court and sang the  Ramayana like balladeers to their father. The tradition continues to this day with  Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, for example, which is not just read but often sung.  And much to my surprise, in the 1970’s, the left-wing firebrand Bengali poet, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, wrote a version of  Ramayana  for children in rhymed verse which was set to music, sung by established singers, recorded on an LP disc and much enjoyed by my children and their peers.

The surprise of the 2016 Nobel prize in literature did not end with just its announcement; it continued with Dylan’s reaction to it. First, he did not have an official response to the award for some two weeks, confusing and even infuriating the Nobel committee, which found his stance “arrogant.” A month later, he announced that because of prior commitments, he would be unable to attend the Awards Ceremony in Stockholm on December 10. Granted that at 75 years of age, Dylan does not make public appearances often, but he still performs in an occasional concert. The off-hand way his decision was made public was, at best, impolite.

Dylan’s is not the first instance of a Nobel prize recipient declining to attend the Awards Ceremony. Ernest Hemingway did it in 1954, citing his lack of oratorical skill, and sent a short message to be read on the occasion. The best-known non-attendance perhaps is that of Jean-Paul Sartre in 1964. Sartre argued that “the writer must refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if it occurs under the most honourable circumstances, as in this case [of the Nobel Prize].” It is not clear if Dylan’s reticence about the prize has any connection with the feelings expressed by Sartre. The late news is that for the Awards Ceremony, “he has written a speech that will be read by the [Swedish] Academy member Horace Engdahl, and that Patti Smith will perform Dylan’s 1963 song ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’.” The song chosen for the occasion is particularly apt for our times. It is a long lyrical poem that is often dense and complex. Here I excerpt the first stanza, which is evocative of Banalata Sen by Jibanananda Das:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son

And where have you been, my darling young one

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains

I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways

I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard

And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

All in all, the story’s likely ending looks like a sensible compromise between a haughty awarding organisation (the Swedish Academy) and an idiosyncratic awardee (Bob Dylan). In planning to surprise and confound the world with their choice of this year’s recipient, the Swedish Academy ended up being way more confounded than it ever wished to be!


(the writer, based in new jersey, is former professor of physics, university of Maryland)