Bob Dylan’s greatest champion as a poet: ‘triumph of genius does the heart good’
Christopher Ricks, one of the world’s leading scholars of English literature, and editor of Bob Dylan’s The Lyrics: Since 1962, celebrates his Nobel success, with a caveat
Bob Dylan at Slane in 1984. “here is a danger, even while we are very grateful this time to the Nobel Committee, if we simply allocate Dylan’s art of song to literature or Literature, of our privileging the words, as though song were not a triangle and often an equilateral triangle.” Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Today, the happiest of turmoils all over the world. Rightly a tribute to the art even more than to the artist, the Nobel triumph – like the art itself – will endure. For the triumph of genius does the heart good, and not only the heart.
Some reminders, since one of Dylan’s powers is that of a great reminder.
First, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the task of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed (Wordsworth’s conviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?) And that therefore there is a danger, even while we are very grateful this time to the Nobel Committee, if we simply allocate Dylan’s art of song to literature or Literature, of our privileging the words, as though song were not a triangle and often an equilateral triangle. This danger is one that those of us who have written in praise of Dylan’s greatness with words – or have edited The Lyrics, complete with sung variants (as Lisa and Julie Nemrow and I have done) – have not been able to escape, have even had to court. A danger, and a deficiency, all the same and all the time. For literature is best thought of – most of the time – as the art of a single medium, language. Nothing grudging about this, but a reminder that there are a great many profound achievements for which there is no Nobel prize. Music, for a start. Or the performing art that is acting, for another, Dylan being a great vocal actor and enactor.
A performer of genius, Dylan is necessarily in the business (and the game) of playing his timing against his rhyming. The cadences, the voicing, the rhythmical draping and shaping don’t make a song superior to a poem, but they do change the hiding places of its powers. Or rather, they add to the number of its hiding places. I’d not have written a book about Dylan, to stand alongside books on Milton and Keats, Tennyson and TS Eliot, if I didn’t think Dylan a genius of and with language. But let’s not forget, in the delight of this moment (of great moment), those other aspects, not strictly literary, of his genius, sharing in the constitution of his art. When Eliot wrote the line “To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage”, it was a creation of words only (though not merely). When Dylan sings “condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting”, he compounds it all, with voice and music joining with words within a different drift and drive. And his drive?
Why are you doing what you’re doing?
[Pause] ”Because I don’t know anything else to do. I’m good at it.”
How would you describe “it”?
“I’m an artist. I try to create art”.
More than try. The Nobel citation speaks of Dylan as “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. More, even, than that.
Christopher Ricks is co-editor of Bob Dylan’s The Lyrics: Since 1962 and author of Dylan’s Visions of Sin. He is the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, having formerly been professor of English at Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford