John Hughes is Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Gloucestershire, and is the author of Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (Ashgate, 2013).
Bob Dylan’s elevation to Nobel Prize winner is something that has been in the wind for a while you can say, since every year his name is mooted as a candidate, a kind of standing reproach for some to the literary elitism of the Nobel committee. However, as so often with Dylan, the actuality of the prize has been divisive, testifying to his continuing power to stoke controversy over the value of what he does: specifically the literary quality, or even literary status, of his work. On the one hand, poets and writers throng to celebrate the award, and Seamus Perry, Chair of the Oxford English Faculty, makes an enthusiastic claim (with which I find it hard to disagree): that ‘Dylan winning the Nobel was always the thing you thought should happen in a reasonable world but still seemed unimaginable in this one’. On the other hand, the briefest glance at the internet or social media shows how actually how totally unimaginable it appears to so many people in fact that it should have been awarded in this world. Above all, the award has just irritated so many people who appear bamboozled by it, leading novelist Irving Welsh to claim in an oft-repeated tweet, that it was a ‘nostalgia award’ wrenched from ‘senile, gibbering hippies’.
Yet it is worth pointing out Welsh remains in a tiny minority of literary artists, most of whom welcome the award (even if their own work remains more firmly entrenched in traditional print culture). An anthology of poems, for instance, by seventy poets greeted Dylan’s seventieth birthday, and Salman Rushdie, Andrew Motion, and many others (of the usual suspects) have been out and proud, and loud and vocal in the press since Dylan’s prize. So is this the Nobel just the occasion for a tiresome rehash of debates that have been going on since the sixties, about the literary qualities of Dylan’s work, where different people audition as gate-keepers or custodians of the literary, and squabble accordingly? Undoubtedly yes, it is all grist to the newspapers (in fact, the nadir of media coverage was plumbed by the BBC who showed a clip of a rubbish Dylan impersonator as the man himself on the 6 o’clock news).
However, even though it is a tired old debate, it is one that is worth considering briefly. My book on Dylan, Invisible Now, I confess was an attempt to find a way to write about what I saw as the sheer inspiration of his work when he was or is at his best, most undeniably in the mid-60s. But I was all too aware that it would be falsifying to treat it as poetry simply. Equally, it seems true that many poets remain in awe of Dylan’s mid-60s prodigality with words, and would give their eye-teeth to be able to do a fraction of what he seemed to do, and with such apparent abandon. So the need for me was to try for an idiom, a way of writing, that could register the literary qualities of his work, as well as its cultural influence, and subjective power, and all its other wider contexts and features… For instance: how write about the relation of his songs to the times, to his musical tradition, to the music, to his ways of singing, to the differing performances and so on?
Bob & Sara Dylan with son Jesse, Byrdcliff home, Woodstock, NY, 1968
With reference to this discussion about the Nobel though, I believe it was this audacity and unbridled creativity with words that was always what other writers acknowledged. And this was often with a kind of amazement or envy that Dylan was able to take possession of popular forms and infuse them with a kind of endlessly transformative linguistic inventiveness that over and again in different ways was able to depict and contest his society, and to gauge variously its constraints and possibilities for individual expression. In this respect, those writers who have identified Dylan with ancient bardic traditions are surely on to something. More specifically too though, there is the point that it is not just what Dylan’s words mean that matters as what the words do. And this after all is in the other sense what the songs mean to those who love them. Right from my first listening to his songs, I felt there was an effect of vitality and decompression in his work that was bound up with the words, and that meant that what was important was the listener too; or put it another way, that the listener needed to be the kind of listener who could, and wanted to, respond to what Dylan, specifically, was doing with words. And while many people do respond enthusiastically to this, one needs to acknowledge, many other people do not, or in mixed ways. And the bamboozlement or hostility that has greeted his award just speaks to this. In such ways Dylan was always a divisive figure, and continues to be so, as we have seen. So the question is not simply whether what Dylan does with words is poetry (the answer probably is no, but it is poetic or literary? Yes, and in the truest sense, one might say). Rather the question is whether one accepts what he does and responds to it, as I say. Which means that the essential thing is whether these songs speak to you, perhaps, whether one is able to answer the question ‘how does it feel?’ in some positive form or other.