Absent Dylan 'panned poetry gold', says Swedish critic at Nobel awards night

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True to form, Bob Dylan failed to turn up to receive his Nobel prize for literature at the annual awards dinner in Sweden. But in the speech he sent, which was read out by the US ambassador to Sweden, the legendary US singer-songwriter said he was stunned and surprised when he was told he had won a Nobel prize. It was “something I never could have imagined or seen coming”.

“If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon,” he wrote.  Dylan said he thought of Shakespeare. “When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles? How should this be staged?’ “

He went on: “I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question: ‘Is this literature?’ ” Dylan explained: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself ‘are my songs literature?’ So, I do thank the Swedish academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question and ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”

Formally presenting the award Horace Engdahl, a Swedish literary critic and member of the Swedish academy behind the prize, said that when Dylan’s songs were heard first in the 1960s, “all of a sudden, much of the bookish poetry in our world felt anaemic.” The academy’s choice of Dylan, Engdahl added, “seemed daring only beforehand and already seems obvious”.

Engdahl argued the novel had once emerged from anecdote and letters, while drama had eventually derived from games and performance. “In the distant past, all poetry was sung or tunefully recited,” he said. Dylan had “panned poetry gold, whether on purpose or by accident is irrelevant … He gave back to poetry its elevated style, lost since the romantics.”

The American singer Patti Smith attended the ceremony in place of Dylan, and sang his early protest song, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, although she stumbled over some of the words, and apologised for being nervous.

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Steven Waling

Fri 16th Dec 2016 12:31

To be honest there have been some totally forgetable Nobel laureates in the past so I don't really see the problem with Dylan getting it. At least his songs are memorable. And he's not the first songwriter either. That honour falls to the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, author of a set of songs, Gitangali, still sung in India to this day.

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Dominic James

Fri 16th Dec 2016 09:19

I must have been about 10 when I heard, blowin in the wind, the times they are a changing, and thought this is it, what I was waiting to hear. Although I didn't take up Dylan for a few more years. And a generation later, sitting in a London suburb garden with my son and one of his buddies, singing Positively 4th St. late, late at night. We all know all the words. It's a better life with Dylan. Literary giants press on my shelves, there isn't a nobel laureate among them I would put before Bob, and I don't reckon him a poet, by the way, that's another argument.

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 16th Dec 2016 01:08

Harry - having some experience in poetry (e.g. verse)
and songwriting (e.g. lyrics), I have the following observations to make.
Rhyme and rhythm can stand in both spheres, whereas
more wayward use of words tend to suit wayward
styles of music. .For example...consider the words of Blake's "Jerusalem" - given such a great tune by
Parry; and Rossetti's "In The Bleak Midwinter" given more than one arrangement, one of which
(by Holst) makes it my own favourite Christmas hymn.
You need to be an accomplished tunesmith to
successfully set music to words of any line, length,
or rhythm, but a looser style of lyric "lines" throws
up its own particular challenges, but no more than that.
There are composers who prefer to work to a previously
written lyric, and lyricists who prefer to hear a tune
before creating their idea of what story it should tell in
any particular context. Writing for the theatre and a
libretto is not the same as writing "popular music
per se". The disciplines have their own demands but
these are not insurmountable to those who know their
business. The mechanics of accent, emphasis and the
rest are essentially the tools of the trade for composers and lyricists who know that business.
Dylan was more of a storyteller/narrator in his songs
and perhaps was his own best composer/arranger for
that reason. Someone like Cole Porter wrote for
the theatre - a 100% storyteller's entertainment -
yet HIS songs, impeccably crafted and constructed -
stand alone outside the theatrical arena, in their own
right as individual specimens of the skill and adaptability
of the songwriter's craft that, decades after they
first appeared, still find huge popularity with each succeeding generation. I bet HE would have attended the Nobel Prize ceremony!!

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Harry O'Neill

Tue 13th Dec 2016 22:51

I was impressed by what Professor Robinson said in the High Windows essay....particularly this:

` can Dylan’s lyrics stand alone as poetry? On both occasions I gave the same answer: ‘No, they can’t.’ Why not? Poetry has been understood over many centuries in English-language cultures to be words composed for, predominantly, a speaking voice – and, consequently, the harmonics and dissonances of the variously weaker and stronger accents in naturally cadenced, pitched and stress-timed spoken English are the ground of its patterns, coherences, and aesthetic orders. Singing is different from speaking: it produces a far greater histrionic range`

The above has to do with (predominantly) the `speaking voice` in poetry, and the point about the `histrionics` of music made me think of the `oyez` style of vocal delivery once delivered by poets like Pound or - more recently - Adrian Hendry...as against the (musically assisted) more
`ordinary` style of Dylan`s delivery.

What does anyone think?

Or Are the two arts as separate as this suggests?

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Graham Sherwood

Mon 12th Dec 2016 14:24

I think you are right MCN I was one of those kids.

In those days you had to listen again and again before you had managed to write down all the lyrics to each song correctly.

If you read the Nobel acceptance speech that he wrote (delivered on his behalf) he clearly states that he never would have dreamed that his words would make the transition into literature, let alone win such a coveted prize.

However it is undeniable that he defines the Cold War generation's hopes wishes dreams and fears!

To me, everything else at the age of fifteen sounded peurile.

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M.C. Newberry

Mon 12th Dec 2016 12:41

I bought one of the earliest Dylan albums (was it called
"Freewheeling Bob Dylan"?) back in the sixties and didn't
feel inclined to repeat the outlay in his direction. His
style clicked in with the Greenwich Village/protest/
fashion at that time, becoming somewhat "cultish"
with the younger generation for that reason. He had
something to day but whether his lyrics are worthy of
a Nobel Prize for Literature (considering the worldwide
wealth of competition in the literary field) will remain
contentious; but not perhaps in the minds of those
who were young when he was young and for whom he
put to music their concerns and need to be heard in an uncertain atomic-age world.

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Greg Freeman

Mon 12th Dec 2016 09:10

There's an interesting essay about Dylan, poetry and literature in the latest edition of the online magazine The High Window https://thehighwindowpress.com/category/essays/

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