Nobel Prize for Literature: Bob Dylan


Well, why not? I can sense some naysayers out there. So, let's take care of the negatives. First, he's, well, a pop artist. I guess that means he's popular with the masses, hoi polloi. So, was John Steinbeck (winner in 1962), Ernest Hemingway (1954) and so is Toni Morrison (1993). But, you say, Dylan's more popular than that, and those people wrote stuff that people had to read. Okay, but popularity's got nothing to do with it; if Toni Morrison was a popular as Dylan, would her work be less worthy? 'Nuf said.

It's true that you don't have to read Dylan. But, the common folk who went to see a Shakespearian play didn't have to read it, either. They listened. Did the fact that they listened to it make it less worthy? Would we deny Shakespeare the Nobel Prize because a bunch of ordinary people listened to the play and liked it, or because the plays were popular? I think not. I would say, in general, the naysayers are just expressing a prejudice against popular music, popular artists in general, and probably Dylan in particular. So, let's get the prejudice out of the way, and judge him on the quality of his work.

To make this more concrete, let's judge him on his poetry. Not the music, and not some idea of "literature," in general. To make it fair, let's judge his poetry against past poets who wrote in English and got the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan should be considered a poet. These poets are:

  1. Rudyard Kipling (1907)
  2. William Butler Yeats (1923)
  3. T.S. Eliot (1948)
  4. Samuel Beckett (1969)
  5. William Golding (1983)
  6. Wole Soyinka (1986)
  7. Joseph Brodsky (1987)
  8. Derek Walcott (1992)
  9. Seamus Heaney (1995)
  10. Doris Lessing(2007)

Not all of these people are best known for their poetry, so let's mainly concentrate on those that only that exclusively wrote poetry, namely, 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9. I'll quote a few lines from each one, and a few lines from a Dylan poem, and see if you can pick out the Dylan poem. (Don't peek at the answers.)


"She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body"[1]

"The darkness drops again but now I know
 That twenty centuries of stony sleep
 Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle"[2]

"Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire"[3]

"Citizen, enemy, mama's boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked"[4]

"Gypsy gal, the hands of Harlem
Cannot hold you to its heat
Your temperature’s too hot for taming
Your flaming feet burn up the street"[5]

"Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells"[6]

Can you spot the Dylan amongst the others? If you can't, you have little reason to think that Dylan ought not to be included among the Nobel Laureates. Maybe it took you a little while to pick out Dylan. You may have had to look for some "markers," like the use of modern American English, or something. That doesn't count against Dylan. Actually, it should count for him. Even if you could spot the Dylan right away, and you think he's not a good poet, can you tell me why every one of the other poem fragments are better than Dylan's?

But, wait, you say, even if I can't recognize Dylan amongst the others, you probably picked a fragment that would compare well with them. It's true; I did. So, you are probably thinking that the corpus of Dylan's work doesn't measure up to the corpus of any of the others'. To make your case against Dylan, you might cite:

"Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed."[7]

As if none of the others had written a mediocre line. Here's one from Yeats:

"Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That's all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die"[8]

The fact is, poets write poems for lots of different reasons. Maybe the poet likes cats:

"Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity"[9]

If we were going to compare the corpus of Dylan to that of any of the other five, we'd be arguing for hours. This article is too short to compare all of these corpora. But, let's just look at one comparison. Is the Dylan poem fragment below less "poetic" than the poem fragment that follows it?

"Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind"[10]

"As you pour yourself a scotch
Crush a roach or check your watch
As your hands adjust your tie people die
In the towns with funny names
Hit by bullets, caught in flames
By and large not knowing why people die"[11]

I'm going to say that Dylan's corpus is as good as at least one of the others'. That leaves it to the naysayers to show that Dylan's corpus is not as good as any of the others'. Don't tell me that some of the others should not have gotten the prize. That's not the argument. Instead, tell me why Dylan shouldn't get the prize. You could explain this to me in general, or note some deficiencies in Dylan's poetry, or quote some lines that show the deficiencies.

Last issue: what about all of those poets who might be more deserving than Dylan, or maybe should have gotten the prize? Like maybe Robert Frost, or William Carlos Williams, or Maya Angelou. Pick your favorite poet. Well, the prize winner must be living, so that reduces the number we should consider. Maybe Frost should have gotten the prize; but he didn't. So, let's concentrate on the task at hand: tell me why every one of the past recepient's poetry is better than Dylan's poetry, or why Dylan is not as worthy as some of the living poets (writing in any language). And let's hurry. The recipient must be living. If we can get over the hurdle of prejudice, we can perhaps start a groundswell of support, and maybe put the idea into the committee's head.

"Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A."[12]