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Please, God, no — don’t give Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize in Literature.

October 4, 2011

Nope, not Ben Franklin, but Syrian poet and Nobel favorite Adonis.

If Bob Dylan, a singer/songwriter, can win a Nobel Prize in Literature, then why can’t Philip Roth win a Grammy? How about giving Richard Dawkins a Tony Award, or maybe a Best Male Athlete prize for Tyler Angle?

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Sure, Dawkins could win a Tony — if he wrote a play. Roth might take a Grammy — if he composed a hit song. But alas, it’s all too likely that Mr. Zimmerman’s rabid partisans may yet wrench a Nobel for their idol, crazy as it seems.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the gaudy author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

According to the Guardian, Dylan has come out of the rear of the pack to become a 10-1 favorite to take the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature, which will be announced Thursday. As recently as yesterday Freewheelin’ Bob’s odds were a remote 100-1.

Dylan still trails the favorites, Syrian poet Adonis (4-1), Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer (7-1), and Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (8-1).  Poor Roth, an American writer who actually deserves the prize (he writes novels, not songs), is eating dust at 25-1.

So what’s wrong with Dylan winning the prize? After all he’s a genius, no argument there, and his work has exerted a profound influence on world culture these past 50 years, and he’s moved and motivated millions if not billions of individual listeners with the artistry of his verse and music.

My problem is that he is a songwriter, not a poet. The skills that go into writing a song are similar, but not identical, to those required by poetry. Not lesser — just different. And the differences is worth preserving.

Let me say again: Being a songwriter is in anyway inferior to being a poet. In fact, having to account for the emotional affect of music, and combining it effectively with the lyric, is a skill poets don’t have to worry about.

In this regard, Tyler Angle provides the best analogy. In case you did not know, Angle is the principle male dancer for the New York City ballet. So why shouldn’t he be in the running for an ESPY for Male Athlete of the Year?

After all, his work is all about jumping around and agility and grace and mental toughness and endurance. His performances call on the same kind of physical exertions demanded of a small forward or a wide receiver — and he has to do it without appearing to sweat or breath hard.

And yet, Angle will never win an ESPY — nor should he, because he’s not an athlete, however heightened his athletic skills may be. No, he’s a dancer. In the same way, however much a lyrical genius Dylan may be, he is a songwriter, not a poet. His artristry does not “transcend” songwriting, but exemplifies it.

Suggesting that Dylan deserves a Nobel is actually denigrating his real art form, songwriting. Why must everything be poetry, for Pete’s sake? A rose is a rose, you know. Calling a song a poem, or a songwriter a poet, improves neither. On the contrary, this kind of mistaken accolade actually lessens the very thing, the very person, you wish to praise.

Ample awards and recognition for great songwriting exists. Everyone in the world, I’d wager, knows who Bob Dylan is. He needs no introduction. Tomas Transtromer, however, could greatly benefit from the publicity a Nobel would bring. So could grateful new readers who otherwise might never be introduced to his work.

Of course, Dylan partisans see no value in the distinction I’m trying to establish here. They’ve nominated him for a Nobel every year since 1997. They brook no criticism of their idol. For comparison purposes, here’s a fan site, chosen at random, called

Indeed, there is no satisfying the Dylanites unless you agree that he’s the greatest musician since Apollo invented the lyre, and can walk on water and raise the dead, and furthermore he’s the most important writer since, I don’t know, Homer. Or maybe God.

Giving Dylan a Nobel in literature will violate the spirit and intention of the prize, greatly harming traditional literature at a time when it needs all the help it can get. And for Dylan what will it be? One more shiny object to gather dust on his mantle.

Update: As of Wednesday evening, British bookmakers have Dylan the favorite for the Nobel Prize for Literature at odds of 5-1, ahead of Syran poet Adonis at 6-1. The winner is to be announced Thursday.

83 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 1:47 pm

    I have to disagree. He is one of the best poets in our time. Sorry buddy. He just has the talent to put them to music. Even better. His music is clearly poetry. His comparisons are much closer than some you have used for any analogy. I always thought him as both. I really do not care about the award but, I do feel his is a great poet and song writer.

  2. Milkcow permalink
    October 4, 2011 4:20 pm

    I think he’s hot….

    • October 6, 2011 10:47 am

      oh yeah… sexiest guy on the planet as far as I’m concerned. Not the prettiest- but definitely the sexiest.

  3. October 4, 2011 4:33 pm

    Wow hardly any comments, surprising. This must not be written well enough to even affect hardcore Dylan fans. Or this blog’s traffic is coming exclusively from Seriously, what a snooze….Chauncey.

  4. Alex Stay permalink
    October 4, 2011 4:55 pm

    Maybe being a songwriter is in anyway inferior to being a poet, but writing what Dylan writes is in no way inferior to writing what Whitman or Eliot or Robert Frost or Kenneth Koch wrote. Are these words not worthy of poetry:

    Now, I’m sailin’ on back, ready for the long haul
    Tossed by the winds and the seas
    I’ll drag ‘em all down to hell and I’ll stand ‘em at the wall
    I’ll sell ‘em to their enemies
    I’m tryin’ to feed my soul with thought
    Gonna sleep off the rest of the day
    Sometimes no one wants what we got
    Sometimes you can’t give it away

    Now the place is ringed with countless foes
    Some of them may be deaf and dumb
    No man, no woman knows
    The hour that sorrow will come
    In the dark I hear the night birds call
    I can hear a lover’s breath
    I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall
    Sleep is like a temporary death

    Well, they burned my barn, they stole my horse
    I can’t save a dime
    I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced
    Into a life of continual crime

    Or these:

    They say times are hard, if you don’t believe it
    You can just follow your nose
    It don’t bother me—times are hard everywhere
    We’ll just have to see how it goes

    My old man, he’s like some feudal lord
    Got more lives than a cat
    Never seen him quarrel with my mother even once
    Things come alive or they fall flat

    You can smell the pinewood burnin’
    You can hear the school bell ring
    Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
    If you wanna learn anything

    Romeo, he said to Juliet, “You got a poor complexion
    It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch!”
    Juliet said back to Romeo, “Why don’t you just shove off
    If it bothers you so much”

    They all got out of here any way they could
    The cold rain can give you the shivers
    They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
    All the rest of them rebel rivers

    If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
    You do so at the peril of your own life
    I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound
    I’ve seen enough heartaches and strife

    My grandfather was a duck trapper
    He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
    My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
    I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes

    I had ’em once though, I suppose, to go along
    With all the ring-dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves
    I left all my dreams and hopes
    Buried under tobacco leaves

    It’s not always easy kicking someone out
    Gotta wait a while—it can be an unpleasant task
    Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
    And tears or not, it’s too much to ask

    Or these:

    It’s bright in the heavens and the wheels are flying
    Fame and honor never seem to fade
    The fire’s gone out but the light is never dying
    Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?

    Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
    Carrying a dead man’s shield
    Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
    Walkin’ with a toothache in my heel

    The suffering is unending
    Every nook and cranny has it’s tears
    I’m not playing, I’m not pretending
    I’m not nursing any superfluous fears

    Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
    Walkin’ ever since the other night
    Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
    Walkin’ ‘til I’m clean out of sight

    As I walked out in the mystic garden
    On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn
    Excuse me, ma’am I beg your pardon
    There’s no one here, the gardener is gone

    Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
    Up the road around the bend
    Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
    In the last outback, at the world’s end

    Or these:

    I’m walking through the summer nights
    Jukebox playing low
    Yesterday everything was going too fast
    Today, it’s moving too slow
    I got no place left to turn
    I got nothing left to burn
    Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you
    It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow
    You left me standing in the doorway, crying
    I got nothing to go back to now

    The light in this place is so bad
    Making me sick in the head
    All the laughter is just making me sad
    The stars have turned cherry red
    I’m strumming on my gay guitar
    Smoking a cheap cigar
    The ghost of our old love has not gone away
    Don’t look like it will anytime soon
    You left me standing in the doorway crying
    Under the midnight moon

    Maybe they’ll get me and maybe they won’t
    But not tonight and it won’t be here
    There are things I could say but I don’t
    I know the mercy of God must be near
    I’ve been riding the midnight train
    Got ice water in my veins
    I would be crazy if I took you back
    It would go up against every rule
    You left me standing in the doorway, crying
    Suffering like a fool

    When the last rays of daylight go down
    Buddy, you’ll roll no more
    I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard
    I wonder who they’re ringing for
    I know I can’t win
    But my heart just won’t give in
    Last night I danced with a stranger
    But she just reminded me you were the one
    You left me standing in the doorway crying
    In the dark land of the sun

    I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry
    And live my life on the square
    And even if the flesh falls off of my face
    I know someone will be there to care
    It always means so much
    Even the softest touch
    I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
    There are no words that need to be said
    You left me standing in the doorway crying
    Blues wrapped around my head

    Or these:

    The walls of pride are high and wide
    Can’t see over to the other side
    It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
    It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away

    One look at you and I’m out of control
    Like the universe has swallowed me whole
    I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

    There’s too many people, too many to recall
    I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
    Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
    Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

    Or these:

    The air is getting hotter
    There’s a rumbling in the skies
    I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
    With the heat rising in my eyes
    Every day your memory grows dimmer
    It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
    I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
    Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

    When I was in Missouri
    They would not let me be
    I had to leave there in a hurry
    I only saw what they let me see
    You broke a heart that loved you
    Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
    I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
    Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

    People on the platforms
    Waiting for the trains
    I can hear their hearts a-beatin’
    Like pendulums swinging on chains
    I tried to give you everything
    That your heart was longing for
    I’m just going down the road feeling bad
    Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

    I’m going down the river
    Down to New Orleans
    They tell me everything is gonna be all right
    But I don’t know what “all right” even means
    I was riding in a buggy with Miss Mary-Jane
    Miss Mary-Jane got a house in Baltimore
    I been all around the world, boys
    Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door

    Gonna sleep down in the parlor
    And relive my dreams
    I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
    If everything is as hollow as it seems
    Some trains don’t pull no gamblers
    No midnight ramblers like they did before
    I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
    Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door

    If they aren’t, then I’m afraid being a poet sucks. I wish he’d win the Nobel once and for all, just to put an end to all the nonsense that’s been circulating about him being a poet or not. He’s a poet in every sense of the word, a great one as well.

    • christtopher john stephens permalink
      October 5, 2011 7:42 am

      Nicely done. Let the man’s words speak for themselves, and they do this morning, quite well.

    • margox 44 permalink
      October 5, 2011 7:54 am

      Could not have put it better Alex !! well done that man.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        October 5, 2011 11:01 am

        If you read my little essay, you will see that I take pains to explain that songwriting is not inferior to poetry — it’s just different. I’m arguing that the difference is worth preserving, and furthermore, adequate prizes, awards, etc., already exist to honor someone like Dylan. Let’s reserve the Nobel for people who write traditional literature, and have far fewer opportunities for notice.

        You can disagree, but please do not mischaracterize my argument.

      • Alex Stay permalink
        October 5, 2011 7:59 pm

        I’ve a nice suggestion for you Chauncey. you might’ve heard about it. it’s called THIS STRANGE INSTITUTION CALLED LITERATURE and it’s written by Jacques Derrida. This is a little essay as well – well, not exactly an essay, actually an interview – and pains to explain the nature of literature are taken here as well, only in this case – and, please, take no offense – these pains raise questions, serious ones. I believe poetry or any kind of literary form whatsoever is named as such whenever its public is interested in READING IT. Believe me, whenever one hears a song such as JOKERMAN or EVERY GRAIN OF SAND or ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE or DIRGE or BROWNSVILLE GIRL or SERIES OF DREAMS (!!!) or WHERE ARE YOU TONIGHT, etc. one HAS TO CHECK THE LYRICS OUT. After doing this, one immediately memorises those words and takes em upon one’s self and makes em his or hers as if one has written them with one’s own hand. This is the gift of the poet, that’s why we’re INTERESTED IN HIM. Dylan himself has said it:

        And every one of them words rang true
        And glowed like burnin’ coal
        Pourin’ off of every page
        Like it was written in my soul from me to you

        Maybe you should LISTEN to him one of these days, maybe this way you’ll find that it just doesn’t matter – anything – and relax

  5. raggedclown permalink
    October 4, 2011 5:00 pm

    Well, I consider myself a hardcore Dylan fan (see moniker), but I agree with you 100%. Not all of us are loonies (just 33% of male Dylan fans and 80% of female ones are in fact certifiable, according to my research).

  6. October 4, 2011 5:23 pm

    He´s a poet and he´ll know it! Hopes he won´t blow it!

  7. Nacho permalink
    October 4, 2011 5:46 pm

    Nobel prizes, leaving science aside, are only propaganda and crap: Winston Churchill, Echegaray (one of the worst Spanish writers ever; I’m Spanish) and Pearl S. Buck, among other nothings, won the Prize in Literature; Henry Kissinger won the Peace one. So who cares anyway?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 11:03 am

      Actually, Nacho, I agree with you. Indeed, I think arts prizes are all bogus (but that’s another column, one I’ve written more than once). But they are fun to talk about, and so we have to pretend they matter, at least for the sake of discussion.

      • nacho permalink
        October 5, 2011 12:44 pm

        Yeah, you’re right; in fact, I commented for the fun, too. Actually, I agree with your article 99%, and I love you wrote it, if only for the overreaction -predictable, but nevertheless funny- of all these so-called Defenders Of The Greatness Of Bob, that bore me to death and at the same time make me laugh out loud. What bothers me most of the possibility of Dylan winning the Nobel Prize is that all these jerks would have an orgasm of cosmic proportions… As you said, please, God, no! (And yes, I have all his records, from “Bob Dylan” to “Live at Brandeis University”, and I think he’s great, but that would be another column, too).

        Anyway, I insist: Joyce, Proust, Borges, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Celine, Pessoa, Musil, Isak Dinesen, Capote, Italo Calvino, etc., etc., didn’t win; so go on, let Philip Roth and William Trevor die without it and give it to Bobby, yeah!

      • October 5, 2011 5:26 pm

        Well if you don’t think they matter why6 would you be so dead set against Dylan winning the prize?- I mean if its just “fun to talk about” why are you so invested in his not winning?

  8. abc permalink
    October 4, 2011 5:49 pm

    jeeze… how many silly attempts of definition can you provide? I’d like to see the golden book where god wrote his rule to make a distinction between lyrics with music and without music to define poetry… you know what? I think Bob doesn’t give a shit about this prize, I think art is great as long as it is protean a and probably songwriting today is way closer to the social impact that poetry had has for centuries than the one that “poetry” itself has today, things have changed, they always do, open your mind, the guy rhymes, and his stuff stands even without music, just reading it, plus it’s fully of amazing imagery, just get at ease with this, real poets transcend boundaries, you should do the same, he writes XX century poetry, that’s all… he made poetry out of songwriting, and you know who seal this? Not Bob’s fans, hardcore or not, but time itself… go back and write Gates of Eden, or It’s allright ma’ (I’m only bleeding), or many other I could quote, and then we’ll speak again about poetry, modern one, maybe you have a too schematic idea of rhymes and metric and rules… there have been a few revolutions in last century… update yourself…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 11:06 am

      So only people capable of writing Gates of Eden are qualified to discuss Dylan and the significance of his work? Hahaha. You just obliterated three thousand years of arts and culture criticism. And also disqualified yourself, so sit down and be quiet.

  9. Nacho permalink
    October 4, 2011 5:59 pm

    But, also, I must agree with you. Anyone who has read the atrocious ‘Tarantula’ and the so-so ‘Chronicles Vol. 1′ knows that Dylan does not write good literature. I love ol’ Bob, in fact he’s my favourite singer songwriter, but he is as good a prose writer as a painter.

    • October 5, 2011 9:36 am

      I’d hesitate to call Tarantula “prose.” It’s not a conventional novel, and I think the entire thing was kind of a put-on. Although there are some wonderfully Dylanesque images scattered throughout.

      But, yeah, I basically agree with the article. I think Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” is beautiful, and it’d be interesting to see the kind of poetry he would have written if he had cultivated that talent. But he didn’t, he focused pretty much exclusively on songwriting. And the songs lose a great deal of power when stripped of their music.

  10. Renaldo (get it?) permalink
    October 4, 2011 6:54 pm

    One of the stupidest articles of its kind I’ve come across. I can’t believe sad little snobs like you still mount your pile of manure to pontificate on behalf of their prejudices…Bob Dylan IS a poet…his medium is Song, which was the primary vehicle for poetry for thousands of years before the invention of the printing press. That you even need to be told this speaks poorly for Miami Dade’s Center for the Literary Arts. Honestly, “Giving Dylan a Nobel in literature will VIOLATE (my emphasis) the spirit and intention of the prize, greatly harming TRADITIONAL LITERATURE at a time when it needs all the help it can get?” Are you SERIOUS? How much more “traditional” can you get than the oral transmission of poetry through song? Or doesn’t Sappho matter? I suppose the Troubadours don’t count, either. No, sonny, the great harm to literature lies in pitiful minds like yours. I guess nothing satisfies the haters either. See you in Stockholm…or not.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 11:11 am

      Apart from your tone of unmerited hostility — you will note I acknowledge Dylan’s genius more than once — you actually make some valid points. And if we lived in the time before Gutenberg, I would agree with you. But we don’t. By harking back to Sappho (!) you discount the past 600 years of Western literary culture, a time during which poetry and song evolved into different disciplines. Perhaps you should just found a church, Dylanology, and start formally worshipping the guy. Clearly, nothing less will satisfy your idolatry.

  11. shastadaisy permalink
    October 4, 2011 7:31 pm

    “And the differences is worth noting.” Let’s learn grammar and then go on to being a critic.

    • shastadaisy permalink
      October 4, 2011 7:34 pm

      Oops, a misquote: “And the differences is worth preserving.”

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        October 5, 2011 11:12 am

        Let’s quote correctly before being a critic. Oops. There’s a reason why newspapers and magazines had copyeditors and proofreaders, but those are silly luxuries on the Internet. I am always appreciative when readers point out typos. A typo, however, does not invalidate a critical argument. Neither does snippiness.

  12. October 4, 2011 8:32 pm

    If there was a musical equivalent of the Nobel Prize, I would agree. Are we seriously going to compare the Grammy’s to a freakin’ Nobel Prize, though? The Grammy’s are a watered-down sham. Everybody has a Grammy these days. I don’t think Dylan wrote “literature,” but if he happens to be acknowledged for his influence on the universe by being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, more power to him. Winning a Grammy isn’t nearly as prestigious as winning the Nobel Prize.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 11:15 am

      Oh, I think getting that Victoria’s Secret commercial trumps a mere Nobel Prize any day of the week.

  13. alias (get it?) permalink
    October 4, 2011 9:58 pm

    This is a newbie blog from a one-track-minded 23 year-old adsense watcher.

    Dylan’s poetry is set on his music. It’s poetry, for clouds’ sake… ask your physics teacher, he’ll tell you Dylan’s work is poetry.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 11:14 am

      Can you translate this into English please? And if you are calling me a 23-year-old, then I don’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.

  14. October 5, 2011 4:53 am

    If Dylan’s not a poet, then what is dear ol’ Patti Smith ??… Dylan, when he feels like it, is among the greatest poets of his time, the problem being, he’s not always feeling like it ’cause he’s many other things as well, and not at all a genius in all of them, poor soul !.. But a Nobel medal ? That’a about the only one he doesn’t own : if he cares, we don’t, hoping it’s not ( that ) dark yet…or that late in our lives, he’s & ours alas linked ! Anyway, let’s get serious and give the damn juju to the syrian guy, at least he’ll have a chance to eat fresh salmon & get drunk on advocaate for a frozen week-end, under a big pale noon for a change !…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 11:17 am

      I am very charmed and amused by your rather lyrical rant, not least because, in the end, you more or less agree with me. I always like that quality in a person.

      • October 6, 2011 6:17 am

        I’m not at all interested in agreeing with you or not : i’m 100% french, the François Villon way. I love poetry in the flesh, i breathe it more than i breathe the fuckin’ air i have to share with other people – excepting the Ladies of this world, all of them of course, past, present & future. I’ll love & hate L.F. Céline till i die, and i’ll love & have fun with Bob Dylan till i die too. I’ve loved champagne & irish whiskey much too much to seduce Nicole Kidman anyday, so life is’nt that worth livin’ it any way, don’t you agree ?
        But you’re probably not at all interested in agreeing with me either, witch is fine & so be it, or let it be – would’n you call Paul Beatle a great poet ???

  15. Glenn permalink
    October 5, 2011 5:48 am

    I have an English Degree and to my mind Bob Dylan is the greatest poet of them all. Professor Christopher Ricks agrees with me. Dylan is one of the true geniuses of the 20th century, and perhaps its greatest cultural icon. Just give him the Nobel Prize, he’s earned it long ago.

  16. October 5, 2011 8:12 am

    Chauncey Mabe is obviously not familiar with the concept of literature being performed?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 11:20 am

      Did I say Dylan’s a genius? Did I say he profoundly altered Western culture? Why, yes, Glenn, yes I did! But I repeat: The difference between the discipline of songwriting and poetry is one worth acknowledging and preserving. To insist that Dylan is a poet, rather than a songwriter, is a pure and rarefied form of elitism.

  17. Kent permalink
    October 5, 2011 10:37 am

    If the Nobel Literature Prize does go to a songwriter, surely Leonard Cohen stands in front of Dylan?

    • October 6, 2011 6:38 am

      Leonard would be the first to admit it : he is a classic poet, he was a classic writer of words almost before he ever wrote one. What is so great with him is his presence in this day and age : his poetry is so powerful that it ” gently” forced his way into the rock’n’roll world and won so much hearts & souls when Zeppelin was setting ten times more bodies on fire ! But that(s because he was very apart from the others songwriters, a great writer with a profond way to reveal & touch the universal soul. He’s a great shaman, much more so than a Jim Morrison, who was a brave heart & a great showman, but a mediocre and pretentious writer. Witch lead us to Bob : not a very brave heart, not the least a classic poet. Something else, like Picasso next to Matisse -Cohen or Dali-Morrison : a cometh, a cyclone. A hard-working pain in the ass in many ways… but a true genius nevertheless !

  18. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 5, 2011 11:24 am

    Hugh Kinsella: You ask an interesting question, and I’ll take the barb out of it and set it over here, on the edge of the desk, and hope it doesn’t go off. As I wrote this I thought of Shakespeare, and the other great playwrights whose plays are indisputably literature. But that’s not what Dylan is, or what he does. He is a songwriter. He took a popular art form and showed how it could be expanded to take any subject matter to regions of the sublime. Just because we really, really like and admire Dylan and what he does — I do not understand why we then have to anoint him poet. As I said above, this is elitism. Let him be a song-and-dance man. Making him a poet denatures his true achievement. Sheesh.

  19. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 5, 2011 11:25 am

    By the way, all you Dylanites can take heart. If the British bookmakers are right, then Dylan’s a shoe-in for the prize. They have him leading the pack today.

  20. David Fahl permalink
    October 5, 2011 12:38 pm

    I’ve always thought that remarks about thinking of songwriting as “poetry” are patronizing to songwriting. A good song lyric is not elevated because someone puts it in the category of “poetry”. Poetry is in no way inherently superior to songwriting. To put Dylan’s songs into the category of “literature” only encourages Literature professors to put their boredom engines to work, and they’ll do to song what they’ve done to poetry in terms of reducing audience and interest. “Chimes of Freedom” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” are both great songs. They do not need to be called “poetry”.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 1:16 pm

      Exactly! You just made my whole argument in five sentences. I’m impressed, grateful, resentful.

  21. October 5, 2011 1:15 pm

    Word play and ideas adds up to literature and that is what Bob Dylan does best. Are we only opening the prize to fiction writers? to fiction and nonfiction writers? to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry writers (who don’t sing their poems of course and don’t get too lyrical at your next reading)?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 1:19 pm

      See David Fahl’s remark above. He has beaten me at my own game. And to my mind, his brief argument is irrefutable. You do Dylan no favors by gilding his lily with terms like “literature,” or “poetry.” Can’t a mere songwriter change the world? Uh, I’ll help you out: Yes.

      • October 5, 2011 2:02 pm

        I’m of two minds when it comes to Dylan and the Nobel. I want Dylan acknowledged–in the way that a Nobel confers acknowledgment, pomp-and-circumstance though it may be–in the roster of artists to whom we turn again and again when pursuing the Biggest Questions about art’s necessity to a meaningful life. Gordon Ball’s document defending this position is convincing and even moving. But Idiot Wind, Highlands, and Desolation Row are creations entirely distinct from the texts that define Nobel’s category of Literature. Considering Dylan’s lyrics as sufficient defense for his contribution to World Art mutilates the songs. The music is not a frame for the words, it’s intrinsic to the emotional, rhetorical, aesthetic experience of the songs. In every case. If this fact can be accommodated openly by a Nobel for Literature, then I will be of one mind. Otherwise, I still hang in the balance.

        Nina Goss

  22. October 5, 2011 1:26 pm

    Except the prize we are discussing is for literature which you are saying cannot include words presented as song lyrics.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 2:24 pm

      Right. You have got it.

  23. Meinhard permalink
    October 5, 2011 1:57 pm

    Bob is a songwriter, but it doesn’t say that you have to write plays, poems, novels or short stories. Literature is also speeches, memoirs, song lyrics and, at times, blogs.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 2:23 pm

      Nina Gross, like David Fahl, makes my arguments perhaps better than I do, or at least some of them. Of course, I’m of one mind on the matter. Let me say for the nth time: Dylan’s a genius, no doubt, but he’s a songwriter, not a man of letters. I daresay no novel or poem or play could hope to have anywhere near the influence his music has had. I’m not going to leap from my balcony if the Swedes give him the prize tomorrow — I don’t really thing they will; he’s handicapped by being an American — but I worthwhile distinction will be needlessly muddied if they do.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 5, 2011 2:31 pm

      In the broadest sense, literature is also advertisements, brochures, handbills, sermons, grocery lists, laundry receipts and on and on. It is no disparagement to Bob Dylan to suggest the Nobel is best restricted to authors in the traditional literary genres. I’ve made and remade my argument. I’ll spare you here.

      Let me say, though, as I neglected to address it above: Leonard Cohen is a great artist, too, but Dylan is greater.

  24. October 5, 2011 2:41 pm

    If you are saying Poets in general do not fit this award I do under stand that. I just always thought he was a poet that put music around his poems. “Tangled up in Blueeees”.

  25. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 5, 2011 2:48 pm

    Nope. He’s a songwriter. He writes songs, not poems. That’s words plus music, without which neither functions as well. As I say upwards there somewhere, it may be an even more demanding discipline than traditional page poetry.

  26. Bob Frost permalink
    October 5, 2011 2:50 pm

    The only reason this discussion is taking place is that Dylan’s work has shattered the traditional mechanics of legitimacy. That he stands so far away in comparison to any other songwriter/musician creates the exception.

    It is important to note that prior to them becoming songs his lyrics were published as poems in “Broadside” and other publications and while some of his songs are just good songs he has an enormous output of major works with significant literary value that can be analyzed using literary techniques. No one else’s work can consistently stand up to this type of scrutiny.

    Ya know, Bob’s been conciously and unconciously screwing with people’s perceptions for fifty years. Like most of his work, give it another decade or two and it will all make sense.


    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 6, 2011 12:33 am

      We’re having this discussion because Dylanites are pushing his Nobel candidacy harder than the Tea Party is pushing small government. Dylan’s a genius — did I say that? — but my concept of what makes a song and what makes a poem is clearer than ever.

  27. Frank permalink
    October 5, 2011 3:01 pm

    So if Leonard Cohen, say, takes one of his poems and turns it into a song, it’s not a poem any more? Or it’s only a poem when he’s not singing it And if a tree falls in a forest….And how many angels fit of the head of a pin.

    • Bob Frost permalink
      October 5, 2011 3:33 pm

      Well Frank, L. Cohen is a legitimate poet and novelist and was published prior to his commercial musical success. I’m also a big fan of Cohen; I simply find that only a small amount of his musical output can stand as literature. I am in no way denigrating his music. It would be foolish to argue that he is not a great musician and songwriter. We are a little off topic here regarding Chauncey’s article. My point on Dylan publishing as a poet and then later adding music adds credence to the works having literary value. Most songwriters and/or their collabrators write music first and then add lyrics. Bob is rare (though not alone) in penning lyrics first.

      Oh, forty-eight angels. Either forty-eight or fifty-two, I forget just now.


    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 6, 2011 12:34 am

      Bob is rare among songwriters in penning lyrics first? Where’d you get that idea? Not in Nashville, that’s for sure.

  28. October 5, 2011 6:31 pm

    To me Dylan is nothing if not Literary. A river of ideals and ideas, thought provoking questions and razor sharp commentary on the injustices of the world where the powerful tend to trample the “weak” and “insignificant.” Dylan’s work illuminates these discrepancies between the haves and the have nots, between the victims and the victimizers always coming down on the side of social justice.

    Dylan may not be a poet- and has said so himself many times. (then again he has said he is a poet many times as well- but not in decades) I was just reading an interview with him where he says songwriting isn’t anything- anyone can do it- and of course this is a contradiction to other comments he has made. In any case, if anyone can write a song, no one that I can think of has produce a body of work that has shifted the whole trajectory of a genre- (folk/rock/pop music) or had such a profound affect and so many people of his generation as well as the generations following. Go to a Dylan show and there are 12 year olds and 75 year olds. By taking big ideas and literary content and combining them with music he made those ideas accessible, understandable as well as inspirational to millions of people who might not ever been exposed to them. His work opened minds, brought literary, philosophical, spiritual and the idea of justice for all to “pop” music and wound up shifting culture.

    I’ve been looking for the criterion which the committees use in awarding prizes but haven’t found it yet.

    From Nobel’s will:
    “…one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”

    I found this:
    “Nobel’s choice of emphasis on “idealistic” or “ideal” (English translation) in his criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature has led to recurrent controversy. In the original Swedish, the word idealisk translates as either “idealistic” or “ideal”.[ In the early twentieth century, the Nobel Committee interpreted the intent of the will strictly. For this reason, they did not award certain world-renowned authors of the time such as James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, and Henry James.
    “More recently, the wording has been more liberally interpreted. Thus, the Prize is now awarded both for lasting literary merit and for evidence of consistent idealism on some significant level. In recent years, this means a kind of idealism championing human rights on a broad scale. Hence the award is now arguably more political.”

    Well- to my mind Dylan’s work has lasting literary merit (including his use of the discipline of literary allusion) to a significant level. Consider the University studies courses and degrees awarded to students writing about his work. I imagine this will only increase as time goes on. His work has championed human rights- and still does. His lyrics may be less explicit, more shaded, nuanced and even esoteric than his earliest work they are just as full of meaning, beauty and ideas, they just take more unpacking.

    The berst part of Dylan’s work, for me, is that it is not about what he meant, it is about what meaning we find over the course of time. Like all good literature, including poetry (and scriptures for that matter) the word is living. Meanings change as we change, we are worked on by the words, we learn, look within, grow change and come back to the literature and find it has also changed. There are new layers and textures. And then the cycle repeats. Bob Dylan’s literary gifts have vastly contributed to culture and the world- and perhaps more importantly to individuals. He continues to do so for which I am grateful.

    Does he deserve the Nobel Prize? To my mind, yes. Does he care? Who knows- but given his beautiful response to winning an Academy Award I think he would be touched and grateful.

    Will he win it?
    I’m not going to even try to predict the outcome. I like being surprised.

    Sorry for the length of this- I should have posted on my own blog.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 6, 2011 12:37 am

      What ideal did Dylan exemplify when he made that Victoria’s Secret commercial? Sorry, that was uncalled for, though that commercial has bothered me since the first time I saw it — creepy! But your thoughts are clear and respectful and well expressed. I’m glad you shared them here.

      • October 6, 2011 11:44 am

        As far as being respectful- I enjoyed your article, you were respectful in sharing your opinion.

        “i ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
        See like me or be like me
        all I really want to do
        is, baby, be friends with you.”

        There is too much nastiness in the world and ugliness in the anonymous world of the net. So many people use their opinions to bolster up their own flagging ego and practice their own so called rapier wit. (See Maureen Dowd’s articles. ewwww)These are most often made by people without any creativity and who don’t contribute much of what is good to the world. And for some reason Dylan draws as much pure bile spewing haters making comments as much as Dylan defenders- (like he needs our defense.) The viciousness often stuns me- yikes. See the articles on Bob’s so called plagiarizing his paintings, oh my, the ignorance of the history of art is stunning. The same for the commentary on his stealing his music.

        While I admit I sometimes respond to venomous comments in kind, it really doesn’t help- it’s just an excuse to point out someone else’s smallness of spirit and blackness of heart by indulging in my own.

        The Victoria’s Secret commercial: Another weird Bobness. Who knows his motivations… When I saw it I just threw my hands in the air and did the “what?” “what the hell?” shaking my head, but laughing.
        I have to say I have a certain feeling of being indulgent where Bob is concerned- kind of like you might have in any long term relationship- best friend, lover- (child?) you know the feeling? Exasperated and amused at the same time? I’ve been accused of being a Dylan apologist- OK- I can go with that I guess, if I have to be labeled.
        There is just something about the little bastard that rocks my world.
        I’m 62 and it only seems to get worse. LOL

        While cruising the net a few years ago I saw a “bumper sticker” mock up that said “Its a Dylan Thing, You wouldn’t understand.”- Whenever I read people complaining… “What is it with Dylan fans? They think he’s God” … or some such- I think of that and smile.

        Sorry- I seem to be hijacking your blog. oops.

  29. October 5, 2011 6:35 pm

    OOPS- sorry for the typos etc. Affect/effect? Words left out, misspellings and incomplete sentences!
    I, it seems, do not deserve a Nobel prize in Literature- perhaps a remedial course in writing is in order.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 6, 2011 12:39 am

      Everyone gets a pass on the Internet. No Moms or copyeditors to clean up after us.

  30. jacob permalink
    October 5, 2011 11:09 pm

    well according to dylan himself…
    “I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind
    I’m no pig without a wig
    I hope you treat me kind
    Things are breakin’ up out there
    High water everywhere”

    • jacob permalink
      October 5, 2011 11:10 pm

      so if the artist’s intention is that he writes poetry, who are we to say that it is not?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 6, 2011 12:42 am

      Well, I’m a book reviewer, cultural critic and journalist. I get paid to have opinions on things like this. You don’t have to agree with me — it’s more fun when you don’t. In 20 years of reading and reviewing books, hanging out and interviewing writers, I can tell you: The writer’s intention means almost nothing. Art only occurs when the writer’s intention is thwarted. It’s a kind of magic. If you don’t believe me, ask a writer.

      • alias (get it?) permalink
        October 6, 2011 11:09 pm

        Art only occurs when the artist’s intention is thwarted.

        There you go.


  31. Steven permalink
    October 6, 2011 2:59 am

    The prize is just a prize. We humans sure like to salute each other. Not much to get worked up about. I liked Doris Lessing’s reaction best a few years ago, when accosted with the news outside her door, carrying a load of groceries: “Oh what rubbish!” (or some words to that effect) I also enjoy the interview available online, in her cluttered kitchen, where she speaks directly about the inspiration of her novels. She is still happy to share; that’s what any great artist really cares about.

    Sure, Bob might have a little extra glint in his eye tonight in Dublin, if he gets the accolade. But I bet he cares more about being able to put on a great rock show, about being able to communicate one more round with song and dance, at the funny old age of 70.

    • October 6, 2011 11:00 am

      Lovely- well said. I wish I were there to share the joy his concerts always give the participants- because that is what we do- participate and share the time with the storyteller. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  32. October 7, 2011 5:16 pm

    Apparently Bob was never in the running – Nobel Prize Permanent Secretary Peter Englund branded the wild betting for this year’s Literature award “crazy speculation”: “It’s crazy. (The betting lists) contain a lot which is just plain speculation. They have to have someone at the bottom of the list, which gives 150 times the money or something, so obviously they have to let in someone who is completely unlikely, some literary UFO.”
    The rest of it, Dylan’s rise from UFO to OMFG front runner, can be put down to “wild betting”. This doesn’t bode well for Bob’s chances in the coming years.

  33. Duncan permalink
    October 7, 2011 6:28 pm

    “I’m a book reviewer, cultural critic and journalist”….well at least Chauncey you have your personal labels clear in your own mind. Bob’s a little more difficult to pin down I think which is part of the enigma. Your repeated reference to the Victoria Secret ad does you no favors but I found your article thoughtful and worth reading. I believe Bob does place value on some awards bestowed upon him, evidenced by his appearance at St Andrews to receive his Doctorate in Music; his obvious elation at getting an Oscar, the small Australian fan thrown copy still graces his stage and the much discussed and documented Princeton Doctorate, prompting Day of the Locusts. I don’t think these public recognitions of his work are left to gather dust. Nor indeed would a Nobel prize. It boils down to ones definition of ‘literature’. I believe what he has produced during his lifetime on the printed page qualifies him for consideration for such recognition.

  34. Lawrence Powell permalink
    October 8, 2011 7:16 pm

    So, Chauncey, explain Leonard Cohen. Is he a poet or a songwriter? I contend he’s both — at the same time. He first became famous as a poet. Then he set his poems to music at which time I suppose they became lyrics. And come to think of it, many famous poems have been set to music. You say there’s a difference, I say there’s not. Just a lot of bad poetry and bad lyrics. The cream rises to the top in either genre.

  35. Lawrence Powell permalink
    October 8, 2011 7:29 pm

    Perhaps, Chauncey, every poem can be a song, but not every song can be a poem.
    Sort of like Sam Taylor Coleridge’s assertion that ‘prose is words in their best order, poetry is the best words in the best order.’

  36. guest permalink
    August 22, 2012 10:29 am

    Bob Dylan’s work will stand- with or without awards- as long as music exists.. the work of a towering giant.

    and he is unique.
    so if there is to be a Nobel (richly deserved!), then let the Nobel committee invent/name a category-
    just for him.

    Seriously. (Essentially, isn’t that what Dylan’s ‘special mention’ Pulitzer was/is?)

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  43. Paul permalink
    February 26, 2014 4:23 pm

    It’s beyond me and an incredibly sad observation that Bob Dylan is so often thought of as the poet of a generation. He writes fatuous, pseudocyetic gibberish that passes for intellectual achievement and is, in fact, an attempt to imitate a perceived obfuscation in poetry that doesn’t exist. He celebrates the authority of interpretive difficulty through the presentation of non-sequiters. His work lacks the credibility of real knowledge, real insight and, ultimately real meaning. As a lyricist how can anyone even conceive of the notion that Dylan compares to Cole Porter or Oscar Hammerstein II? What Bob Dylan represents is the remarkable laziness of a generation caught up in the need for its own aggrandizement in the face of just not trying very hard. I’d go on but it’s time for my boot heels to be wanderin’.

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  45. Jill permalink
    October 18, 2016 7:57 pm

    I can’t stand his voice

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