As I write this morning, Thursday October 20, there is no assurance that Robert Zimmerman, the original name of Bob Dylan at birth in 1941 (before he adopted Dylan Thomas from one of the greatest American poets ever) has responded to the Award, either way. However, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius said that the choice of Bob Dylan, whom she described as one of the world’s ‘greatest artistic figures’ was ‘not a difficult decision’. She, however, immediately took her words back on the popularity, in-house, of her decision, not to talk of the extremities in the evaluative responses to the Committee’s decision by great figures in world poetry, art and music, when she expressed the anxiety, indeed hope, that ‘the Academy will not be criticised for its choice.’
The inherent ironies in the operation, nature, reality of the Award/the Prize—its source, its history, its quaint aptness in relevance, on the one hand and the controversy that inheres this particular choice—will make this year’s award, especially its recipient, very intriguing and controversial. The choice of Bob Dylan has attract extremities of perceptions, from the most favourable and adulatory to the most passionately negative—neither of which will be derived from the non-popularity of the recipient as a creative artist, a creative and original inventor in the pop song-writing and lyrical tradition in best America and the English traditions. Indeed, Dylan has been generously located with the greatest lineages of poets from the classical to the contemporary—having been ranked in greatness alongside classical poets like Homer and Sappho and the modern English poets like William Blake, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and so on.
What is most significant is the fact that the award should put paid to the genric controversy between music and poetry. For a very long time, purists of the literary and musical genres have considered poets, as either failed musicians or musicians as failed poets. Drawing distinctions between the essential features of music and poetry—either in terms of form and structure or in terms of feelings, passion and compassion has dominated the artistic landscape for a very long time. Some of the earliest commentators on the award have also engaged this controversy. Billy Brigg considers Dylan’s popular poem, Mr. Tambourine Man, especially the last couple of stanzas, as an eye and ear opener to the ‘fact that music and poetry could co-exist together.’ Andrew O’Hagan applauds the award of the Nobel Prize to Dylan as a ‘great boon to lovers of fair-minded compassion, fellowship and common decency which step forward as perfect moment to do battle with the egotistical, bigoted, greedy, misogynistic spitefulness of Trump’s America.’ He has moved on to, rate Bob Dylan as a ‘lyricist of genius’ whose poetry is ‘as good as anything in America’s poetry.’
Many, like the great film-maker Elijah Wald, even, contestably, feels that not only is the distinction-drawing between music (song writing) and poetry needless, the exercise is a disservice to music which is more popular, with greater and wider outreach, permanence and influence than poetry; ‘songs tend to reach far more people and touch them more deeply than poetry or novels.’ For him, Dylan has more than earned the Prize as he ‘transformed the role of lyrics in popular music.’ in a way, that no writer in the last half of s century has done with as much influence as Bob Dylan has done.
I have read the spontaneous and passionate reactions of some of the most influential poets, novelists, film-makers and artists on the aptness or otherwise of Dylan Thomas—Salmon Rushdie, Cerys Matthew, Jaruss Cocker, Andrew Motion, Billy Braggs, Richard Williams, Will Self, Guy Garvey, Andrew O’ Hagan, Jonas Mekias, etc., and the over 30,000 comments posted in the social media. I will only cite further, especially the extreme examples of responses to the Award of the Nobel to the first songwriter ever and the first American to win it since Toni Morrison. The rest will find their levels within the ranks of evaluations.
Salmon Rushdie of the famous The Satanic Verse is one of the most adulatory in his admiration of the song-writer’/poet and the unequivocal correctness of his choice. Lauding the Nobel team for its inspired choice, Rushdie finds Dylan towering, in a most dimming way, over the other great lyricists/songwriters in whose times and world we live. This is because, in his judgment, Dylan exemplifies the continuing ‘widening of the frontiers of literature’ and it is kudos to Nobel Prize for recognizing the elasticity of literature’s horizon which empowers them to award the prize to one who would ordinarily, in the purist literary world would hardly be classified as a poet,
On the other extreme side of the divide, and one that defrays nothing from the stature of Dylan Thomas as a ‘polymorphous genius, whose talents includes the literary, Will Self admonishes Dylan to follow the example of the great French philosopher, Jean Pau Sartre and shun the award. He says this because he considers him a musician of inimitably great stature who will be demeaned by the source of the Prize; ‘It cheapens Dylan to be associated at all with a Prize founded on explosives armaments fortunes.’ The quality of the choice of the Nobel Committee is also assailed by Self; the Prize, he says, is ‘more often awarded to a Baggins whose turn it is than world class creative artists.’ This is highly disputable, judging from the great writers who have won the award in the past.
One aspect of the work of the Nobel Committee of eighteen is the political correctness of their choices from year to year. While, for some time now, we as Africans may have, justifiably I think, felt thoroughly let down by the thinness of African Nobel laureates, especially the disappointment in not giving it to some of our well-deserving literary patriarchs such as Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah, and In the last exercise, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, I have no difficulty in aligning with the position of Andrew O’ Haggan when he commends the Nobel Committee for playing a commendable and strong game of ‘subtle political assertion’ in its choices of awardees. For instance, the award of the Prize writers and activists who suffer political persecution such as Alexander Solzenytnzn, Czeslaw Mailosz and Seamus Hearny at socially and politically expedient moments in history when the ‘sublime virtues’ of the winners are ‘most necessary to the times and essential to the place’ commends this position. The awards sometimes come as vindication of voices of dissent who have suffered political persecution, exile and humiliation.
It is time then to congratulate our latest Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan, for doing popular literature a great and deserved turn. A song writer who got his first guitar at the age of fourteen and who has remained in the consciousness of America and the world for over five decades, Dylan has been noted for his shyness in embracing his great reputation as a unique creator and original inventor in the popular literature domain, where he has captured ‘ the spirit of rebellion’ and in the words of Andrew Motion, Dylan has ‘bent, teased, coaxed and persuaded words into lyric and narrative shapes that are at once extraordinary and inevitable.’ Since 1961 when his first recordings caught/ seized the world’s musical and poetic imagination, Dylan has maintained a steadily rising popularity in defining the essential popular/literary culture. His incredible sense of humour is often subdued by the seriousness of his committed, prophetic and serious lyrical musings and themes of betrayal, war and political turbulence, death, love and moral rectitude. In all of these sombre choices of thematic preoccupation, his songs have been found to ‘bring beauty to life’s greatest tragedies.’
While the world will continue to listen to his highly versified lyrics as music, this Award must compel us to begin to read Dylan as a poet and one of the most influential creators and figures in contemporary popular culture, who has been unable to shake off critics who continue to give him ‘a hard time from day one’ in the needless effort to place his genre as either a musician or a poet. No doubt, as Rushdie aptly describes his contribute, Dylan has extended the frontiers of literature.