Eternally alluring Bob Dylan deserves his Nobel win

bob0715 FILE - Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles | AP

Bob Dylan lived long enough to see himself become a classic, yet he’s still here, still making music, still thinking and writing for what it’s worth

Since the news of this year’s Nobel in literature broke, social media has been set on fire by a man the world does not know as Robert Allen Zimmerman. Reactions range from ‘Why him?’ from the champions of other musical song writing phenomena, to snide queries of ‘Have you read Bob Dylan’s latest novel?’ from scandalised literature buffs. All this shows that Bob Dylan has only done what he does best: ignite a controversy. I’m not qualified to do a comparative reading of Dylan’s lyrics versus, say, Leonard Cohen’s, so instead I’m going to deal with the larger question of whether this award by the Nobel committee poses a threat of any kind to the hallowed canons of literature, as some of my learned friends would have us believe. The answer to that is no, not in the least.

To give you my reasons why I say this, I have to take you 200 years in time to that era we erroneously call the Romantic Period. In England, it would more properly be called the Regency. I teach romantic literature to first year students at Jadavpur University. One of the things I an fond of doing to the young minds in my charge is pointing out to them how like rockstars the romantic poets were. Byron was so much of a rockstar that he was regularly spied on by telescope from a hotel across the lake from his villa, and his domestic arrangements were discussed in the hotel’s guest book: possibly the first recorded fanpage. Shelley, the atheist, was famously caricatured with those essential accoutrements of a rockstar, horns and a tail, and Keats didn’t even make it to the 27 club. Coleridge’s foreshadowing of Syd Barrett’s meltdown is well known. All that was lacking was the music, and Shelley made up for this by writing a poem on a guitar that he gave as a gift to a woman he fancied. Guitars were the instruments of poor wanderers and gypsies, and they were also cheap, so they were irresistible to the often penniless Romantics.

Then the world forgot about those revolutionary lunatics and got on with the serious business of the 19th century. However, the Romantics had all, as a group, done something irreparable to the psyche of the modern capitalist world. They had rebelled in the name of youth. They had burned their fathers’ fortunes and hit the road with whichever young woman was up for some self-discovery and experimentation on the windy side of respectability. The paradigm has not changed much, because as William Blake knew, youth is a time of archetypes, and archetypes are powerful. Shelley loved to talk about revolution using geographical similes: the volcano was a favourite, as was the avalanche. Thoughts in enlightened minds gather like snowflakes until their combined weight rearranges the landscape.

Bob Dylan is one rolling stone in that avalanche. He is very stone-like: his voice is gravelly, he doesn’t bend much, he’s more or less ploughed his own way across the landscape of modern music, doing everything wrong at the wrong time. That’s why you notice him. He stands out, like a rock in the middle of the desert, an angry red rock. His anger is the anger of a thousand failed revolutions. In the two centuries since the first failed revolution, the barricades have gone up and come down too many times, and each time it seems that things have gotten a little worse. The Cold War may be ended, but the hard rain’s still up there, in the clouds, waiting. No wonder that Dylan ended up refusing the name of prophet: who would want to bring these messages of doom to the world over and over again?

But the role of prophet is, unfortunately, part of the archetype, and Dylan has gone on, post his motorcycle accident and withdrawal, to write and sing songs. As William Wordsworth reminds us in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, the word ‘lyric’ means ‘song’ and a poem that does not have music lurking within it is not a lyric. Wordsworth was pleading for an end to the wooden heroic couplets and overblown similes of eighteenth century poetry, but he might just as well have said it about today’s ‘free verse’ where anyone who can hit enter on a keyboard thinks short lines make poetry out of prose. The most intelligent literary poets of the 20th century have allowed the rhythms of the music of their time to permeate their diction, so why shouldn’t poets come at their art from the other direction, and let the poetry ride the music? What is the difference, after all, between liner notes and poetry collections? In Shakespeare’s day, his plays were vile popular stuff that no gentleman would soil his hands with. Luckily for us, audiences of subsequent ages, having lost or forgotten the unclassyness of the original art, disagreed with the Elizabethans. I suspect that future ages will constitute the canon of 20th century poetry from the album racks of teenager’s bedrooms of the time rather than the stuffy showcases of their parents.

We are living in an odd time when the rebellions of the past have become old enough to be historical, yet remain forever young because, like the unfortunate lives of those oddball Romantic poets, they are re-envisioned and recycled by each generation for itself. Bob Dylan lived long enough to see himself become a classic, yet he’s still here, still making music, still thinking and writing for what it’s worth. Luckily for him, because they don’t give you the Nobel if you’re dead. Maybe he’ll write a song about it, an irreverent, angular and sandpapery song that will be remembered. After all, the only test of a literary work is, can it still be read when it’s time is over and done? On devices and websites across the world, in the hands of travellers and prisoners alike, Bob Dylan continues to be read.

Rimi B. Chatterjee is the Associate Professor at the Department of English in Jadavpur University. She is the author of Black Light, The City of Love and Signal Red

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