Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize divides Irish writers and literary critics
Bernard O'Donoghue, Liz Nugent and Darran Anderson bring to 40 the array of authors, poets and scholars reflecting on the significance of Dylan's literary honour
The writers of song lyrics have always been central among the great poets from Shakespeare to Burns, and there is no doubt that Bob Dylan has been prominent among them since his emergence in the 1960s. Adrian Mitchell said most people will ignore poetry as long as poetry goes on ignoring most people; Dylan is an admirable counter-example. From the start his case has been argued by Christopher Ricks (this award is a vindication for him as well as for Dylan himself). Of course it is essential that the lyrics that qualify their writer for major distinction have to have poetic power and skills; Dylan has always had them in abundance, both in the early poems of social and political engagement - Blowin' in the Wind, 'The Times they are a-changin, Hattie Carroll - and in his great,universal personal poems. Above all his inventive creative gift with imagery and metaphor are incomparable - 'If today were not an endless highway', 'It's all over now, Baby Blue', 'Don't think twice, it's All right', 'My love, she speaks like silence'. This Nobel award is a great moment for Dylan but it is an equally important moment for the place of poetry in the world.
Bernard O'Donoghue is a poet and academic. His latest collection is The Seasons of Cullen Church. He teaches English at Oxford University
I'm delighted he won and bemused by the backlash and controversy it's caused. It's not like he's Donald Trump. Dylan winning does nobody any harm. He is undeniably a poet. I wouldn't have minded if Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell won either. Literature comes in many forms and it is heartening to see song writing now being included and exalted to an art form. As for me, I have been listening to Dylan since I was a teenager. Unfortunately, I've never had a great experience seeing him perform, although others have seen him in jovial form. He has always been uncommunicative to the point of sullen. I've decided not to attend his gigs anymore. I'll just play the songs, listen to the lyrics and appreciate him from the comfort of my kitchen.
Liz Nugent's latest novel is Lyng in Wait
My initial response was disappointment that it wasn’t awarded to Leonard Cohen. For me, he’s the greatest poet of the “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart" (as Yeats put it) perhaps ever, certainly since Emily Dickinson or John Keats. And his books are readable, which wasn’t perhaps Dylan’s primary concern with Tarantula. So it seemed like they missed an open goal. At the same time, there wouldn’t be a Cohen, at least in the form we know him, without Dylan. Just as Zimmerman wouldn’t have become Dylan without Guthrie, Rimbaud, Leadbelly, Ginsberg, Hank Williams, Kerouac and so on. Bob Dylan is easy to place in various Western literary traditions; if you were so inclined, you could write sprawling texts on his early reinventions of Irish and Scottish ballads, the influence of the Beats or the French Symbolists on his work, the shadow he’s cast on others since. I’m sure people already have.
I understand the scepticism and the enthusiasm but I think it’s more interesting to take an oblique view of things. There are a lot of reasons to differentiate literature from other art-forms but the emotions you encounter when the orthodoxy is challenged like this suggest it runs deeper and more territorially than the practical reasons we think. I’ve very little trust in anyone defining what poetry is or isn’t. When I hear someone defining what the canon is, all I hear is waste, and a hell of a lot of profound creative work being excluded for no good reason other than taste and snobbery. It’s embarrassingly juvenile and imperial. Most poets know it’s a battle that was already fought and won a long time ago; read Frank O’ Hara or d.a. levy, who are both long dead. Following their example, I take poetry in the loosest plural sense. There’s poetry in Tarkovsky films, Paul Klee paintings, Louis Kahn buildings, Vivian Maier photographs, Will Eisner comics, Waldo Emerson diaries. There’s poetry in Bjork, Rakim, Nick Cave, Doseone, Rennie Sparks, Thomas Tallis, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and endless others. Poetry is more robust than we give it credit. It contains multitudes, to paraphrase Whitman. This might seem irritatingly broad and amorphous, and I’m not suggesting everything counts for inclusion, but we do poetry and literature no favours by narrowing their possibilities.
Darran Anderson is the author of Imagnary Cities and the forthcoming Tidewrack
The amount of 'Does Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature?' themed articles I'm seeing! As if this is even a topic worthy of debate. What is wrong with these people? I even saw some crazy lady opine that, along with the possible election of Donald Trump, this was further evidence of the decline of civilisation. What she doesn't seem to realise is that giving the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is the exact opposite and antidote to the Trump v Clinton circus. Rather than the vulgar, egotistic, acquisitive side of American life that all good people rightly loathe, Bob Dylan represents all that is best about America, and what it has given to the world, ie its culture, especially movies and music. Indeed, blues, jazz and rock'n'roll are the indigenous American art forms: they began there, through the meeting and mixing of African rhythms with European melody and counterpoint. Bob Dylan has made a greater contribution to culture in general and literature and music in particular than the majority of poets and novelists can ever hope to do. Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo would be the first to tell you so. That is all.
Desmond Traynor's works include The Myth of Exile and Return
I have no interest in asking whether or not Bob Dylan was a poet - just as I’d have no interest in considering his words separately from the music, if it were possible for me to do so. The words, the song, the voice, the music - they are indivisible parts of the whole, of the art. I feel the same about the work of Leonard Cohen, of Conor Oberst.
I grew up in a house that was a shrine to Dylan – “Bob”, as he was known, like an uncle or a family friend. There were portraits of him on the walls - him and no-one else. My father has spent his lifetime passionately engaged with Dylan’s work, thus providing an early template for my own fanaticisms. Hearing Dylan’s albums on cassettes in the car during my childhood, I knew instinctively that this was great art before I had given any thought to what “great art” might mean. This baptism in the fire and flair of Dylan’s songcraft no doubt played a role in my own decision to devote myself to harnessing the force of language. Listen to the end-of-days, spitfire intensity of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), or the calm devastation of If You See Her, Say Hello, or the stomp and swagger of Shake Shake Mama. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Who cares? It’s great art.
Rob Doyle’s latest work is This is the Ritual
Persecuted and silenced and eventually executed by Stalin, Mandelstam believed that his poems would survive if people needed them. Step away from the ego and everything falls into place. Every now and then an artist comes along who channels something bigger than his or herself. When he was starting out, Dylan immersed himself in music, he listened and read, he stole records, he tapped the mother lode and he exploded. He soaked himself in tradition – made it new, make it fresh. As a teenager, I listened to my Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 until the ribbon wore out and it inspired me as much as Plath and Kavanagh and Yeats. Maybe some of his songs won’t stand the test of time on the page, but that can be said about any poet. Poetry itself is democratic and subversive, you never know where it will land – this Nobel prize honours that fact. Has Dylan benefited mankind? I am sure of it. Too many people are turned away from poetry in school – but they had a need for poetry and Bob Dylan filled that need.
Martina Evans is a writer and poet. The Windows of Graceland, New & Selected Poems was published earlier this year
-See Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.
-There’s loads o’ them. Bukes, science, accountancy – there’s rakes o’ the things. There’s even one for fuckin’ peace.
-Science then - I think.
-Fuckin’ science? He won the Nobel Prize for science?
-Has to be, I’d say. That song, Mister Tambourine Man.
-What about it?
-Well, how can one sham play a song with only a fuckin’ tambourine? It can’t be done. It’s like givin’ some poor fucker one o’ them Irish yokes –
-Exactly. An expectin’ him to play Bohemian Rhapsody on it. It’s just not possible.
-But Dylan cracked it.
-That’s me theory. But seriously –
-He deserves it. The buke – the literature - prize.
-I’m with yeh.
-I remember when me brother brought home Highway 61 Revisited, when it came ou’, like. Now, I love me music – always did. But, like, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I mean, there wasn’t much in the lyrics of anny o’ the songs back then. An’ then I heard, ‘They’re paintin’ postcards of the hangin’, they’re paintin’ the passports brown.’ It was amazin’. The start of my life, nearly. Even me da stopped complainin’ about the noise.
Roddy Doyle's The Commitments musical is on at the Bord Gais Energegy Theatre, Dublin. facebook.com/roddy.doyle
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 T.S. 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
Bob Dylan had the ability, at the age of 20, to sound as grizzled and world-weary and wise as an 80-year-old Appalachian backwoodsman. It’s astonishing to listen to The Times They Are a Changin’ or Mr Tambourine Man and to realise they were written and recorded by a man barely out of his teens. Or perhaps it’s not so surprising when you consider that he is Woody Guthrie’s self-declared inheritor, about whom he wrote: “the songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them... [He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.” This meticulously achieved ambition and his relentlessness in its pursuit; his knack for tapping the zeitgeist, his ungainsayable representative status, and his sheer longevity, would in any event have ensured Dylan’s pre-eminence. The Nobel Prize simply sets the seal on it. There is a popular school of thought, to which poets themselves frequently subscribe, that poetry, from being at best a coterie activity, has long since vanished into the preeningly self-referential, meta-literary fog of its own irrelevance. It would be nice to believe, as William Carlos Williams did, that “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there”. When this conviction crumbles away, there is always Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen to listen to: true keepers of the bardic flame. If greatness is measured in terms of lives enriched and artists influenced, then Dylan, the most brilliant of an extraordinary generation, is surely the embodiment of greatness. It’s difficult to think of a Nobel Prize in Literature more overdue, or better-deserved.
Caitriona O’Reilly’s latest poetry collection is Geis
It’s the oddest award since the one to Winston Churchill in 1953. Or maybe the boldest. I don’t begrudge Bob Dylan. The man’s a genius. But that genius lies in the combination of words and music, not in the words alone. The best of his lines are as memorable as William Blake’s or TS Eliot’s or Philip Larkin’s – they’ve entered the language; once you’ve heard them, you never forget. But the hearing – Dylan’s voice – is crucial. Seamus Heaney’s voice had a great voice too but his poems work on the page without you hearing it. Whereas some of Dylan’s words, divorced from his music, have faults no poetry workshop would allow – cliches, archaisms, inversions, whimsies, repeats to pad out a line. Like the poet from whom he took his name, Dylan Thomas, he veers between metaphorical brilliance and an empty rhetoric that even Christopher Ricks struggles to justify or make intelligible.
Does it matter? Not much. It doesn’t do to be snooty. As far as I’m concerned, good on you, Bob: your star won’t fade as fast as several others who’ve been honoured over the years. And maybe the Nobel committee is correct in its determination to widen the notion of what literature is. Last year’s award went to an oral historian. Maybe next year it’ll be a graphic novelist. Or why not a screenwriter, since the best films, like the best music, are enriched by good writing? Still, if the time was ripe for an American to be Nobelled again, I’d have gone for Philip Roth, whose contribution to literature is as great as Dylan’s has been to music. I don’t suppose Roth gives a damn. But it’s a pity that he’ll never now get the gong he deserves.
Blake Morrison is a poet and author, best known for his memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?
I grew up under the influence of Duran Duran and all things New Wave, so I was not then attuned to Bob Dylan’s rasping, craggy voice of social protest. Yet, this year, under the influence of my now 13-year-old son, I stopped reflexively changing the station when Dylan came on the radio. Indeed, in those seconds before reaching to change the station, the totality of an era of war protest registered as my son’s eyes glossed at the thought of the draft a young man pleading, “Mama put my guns in the ground/I can’t shoot them anymore.”
That this awakening happened amidst the vitriolic torrent of words hurtled throughout the 2016 Presidential campaign season, suggests the trans-historical influence the best of our poets still hold. In Dylan’s work, there’s a deep invocation of an American folk music that combines story with music, a mode of storytelling that harkens to a bardic tradition predating the novel.
Michael Collins’s latest novel is The Death of all Things Seen
As a writer I am regularly asked which writers I admire and/or inspire me. I always say Bob Dylan; he was the one who stirred me to first put pen to paper. Poetry and song are interchangeable within the Dylan oeuvre, and when the Swedish Academy recognised his true genius and importance to the world of literature it gave me great pleasure, almost emotionally so. For over two decades I’ve been spouting to anyone who’d listen that Dylan transcended the lazy moniker of singer/songwriter.
Bob Dylan is a true creative chameleon and cultural icon; his songs (over 450 of them) take many forms from social commentary ballads and living newspaper documents to heart-wrenching love songs and four-bar country ditties. But each and every one vindicated today as pieces of lyrical poetry. Pieces that question and stretch the parameters of what we believe literature to be.
Exciting times may lie ahead for the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
Brian Conaghan’s latest novel is The Bombs That Brought Us Together
Would you like to write something about Bob Dylan on his receiving the Nobel Prize? asked the Irish Times a few minutes ago. I would. I could count on one hand who’d had an equivalent impact on me. But how to do so without being cloying or solemn? Particularly as, among the many other things he is, being both funny and deadly are among the most salient.
I first heard him, really heard him, when I pulled up in a friend’s car in my high school parking lot and Like a Rolling Stone came on the radio. I could have been the paperboy on Leave It to Beaver then, or someone on the Disney Channel, pressed trousers, penny loafers, parted hair. No living American could have been more alien to me than Bob Dylan. He wore Cuban heels and polka dot shirts, had a Warhol-like pallor and a viperous tongue. What could I know of a diplomat on a chrome horse? I made to get out of the car, but the song held me. It was its impossible fertility of image and rhyme, its intensity and scorn and the way he enunciated each stinging word. It was so contemptuous, yet so glorious. I could taste it and feel it and didn’t want to leave it. I had no idea such a person was in me, but the song had found him. “When I first heard Elvis I felt like I busted out of jail,” he said. He worked the same magic. I looked today down the list of Nobel laureates and couldn’t find one who’d quite managed to do that for me, great though their gifts are.
There is for me in the way he writes the feeling of someone awakening from a long illusion. The perception seems so pure, the language so luminously concrete. It’s all on the line, he’s seeing it for the first time, he’s going for broke, a small Jewish naked nerve, alone and triumphant. It’s all there, the full human range – whimsy, rage, righteousness, visions, jokes, epic narratives, hurt, rapture, vengeance, tenderness, a terrifying emptiness. He can excoriate (Masters of War), make manifestoes of personal liberation (It’s All Right, Ma), wound (Positively Fourth Street), yearn (Tomorrow Is a Long Time), tell stories (Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts) and parables (Señor), crack you up (Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat). There are stories on New Morning and Tempest that have something of Chekhov. He’s very fast in the making of characters (“The backstage manager was moving all around by his chair / ‘There’s something funny going on,’ he said, ‘I can just feel it in the air’”). Sometimes he misses but mostly he hits a vein. He knew he was going somewhere and wouldn’t be detained (“And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it / Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking / And I’ll know my song well before I start singing”).
There’s something eerie about it, his accuracy, the way he anticipates what you seem to be feeling with a lyric that feels like it is happening inside you. I’ve seen him on a lot of stages. Sometimes I’ve looked at him through binoculars. But I can’t ever quite seem to find him. I can see the bass player, the roadies, the people in the wings, but it’s as if he’s a photograph that’s been smeared in the developing. You can’t quite see him, but he seems nevertheless to be on intimate terms with you.
Timothy O’Grady’s latest work is Children of Las Vegas
What, have they run out of writers? Next, they’ll be giving Sportsperson of the Year to Margaret Atwood. Or the Man Booker Prize to Bono. We’ve waited so long for a winner from the US, and with all the possible winners out there (Marilynne Robinson, Don deLillo?), they’ve only gone and wasted it on Bob Dylan. Not that I’ve anything against Bob Dylan, but he writes songs, not literature; let’s face it, they’re just not the same thing. Songs rely on the external scaffolding of music; literature makes its own music, it sings to its own tune. Songs have a structure that’s set out in verse and chorus, and unless they’re keen to be avant-garde (which I’m not aware Bob Dylan is), they won’t budge from it. The kick of good literature is its capacity for surprise, structurally as well as content-wise.; it takes the kind of liberties with form a song would not think to do. Songs have different ways of leaning into surprise, but they are rarely to do with form. Bob Dylan writes good songs. Calling that good literature, or even, help us, the best literature of the day, is asinine. Selling to a mass audience brings its own rewards: the Nobel Prize for Literature should recognise a writer who has written literature – that’s something too.
Vona Groarke’s Selected Poems were published earlier this year
Bob Dylan, like Shakespeare, whoever you are and wherever you live, and whether you know it or not, is now in our very bones. On reflection, and notwithstanding the revolutionary Highway 61 Revisited and the iconic Blonde on Blonde, and indeed his excellent autobiography Chronicles, I suspect that it is probably the lyrically sublime Blood on the Tracks album that has pushed him over the line for the award. This divine piece of work – both American and European at the same time - with its surreal imagery and its existential themes and its painterly canvas and its bleak, fatalistic take on love, not to mention its timeless tenses and its nod to Chehkov (by his own admission) and Yeats and Keats and Blake (by everyone else’s) is truly a masterpiece in honesty and craft and storytelling – a worthy winner.
Billy Roche is one of Ireland’s leading playwrights, best known for the Wexford Trilogy, and a former singer songwriter
The argument about whether Dylan’s words are poetry has always struck me as misguided. A good poem is a mysterious and wonderful thing and a good song is a mysterious and wonderful but different thing. Both depend entirely on rhythm but a poem must supply its rhythm through words whereas a song depends on the music. Every creative work is a combination of effects that would have difficulty surviving alone and song lyrics always look to me pitifully denuded, like butterflies with their wings torn off.
The real issue is whether the music as a whole merits the prize and it is probably just as pointless to argue about this. The Nobel is rarely based solely on merit. Dylan’s liberal credentials may have been as important as his music. Best to use the occasion as a good reason to listen to the music again and have the arguments that matter. Is the official line right to single out Blonde on Blonde or is there as much to be said for the Seventies and Eighties albums (I’m a fan of Desire – and where would it be without the electric violin of Scarlet Rivera)? Are the recent albums rubbish or a strange late flowering, an example of the senile sublime, like Picasso’s last works?
Michael Foley is a poet and author. His latest work is Isn’t This Fun?: Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves
“Johnny’s in the basement/Mixing up the medicine”. For years, Christopher Ricks, English professor and poetry anthologist, was a lone voice proposing the radical notion that Bob Dylan was a poet whose lines were as worthy of the same critical attention and nuanced exposition as he brought to bear on the Odes of John Keats. Ricks stuck to his guns to a chorus of hoots from the professional poetry elite, the English professors and poettasters of the wider literary world. This week’s announcement that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature will drive that derision to a crescendo. But Christopher Ricks has been vindicated by the Swedish Academy’s enlightened decision. Bob Dylan is a poet. He is so not just because his lyrics employ many of the formal features of traditional poetry: assonance, alliteration, repetition. That poetic originality derives equally from the prominence words have in all of Dylan’s songs, from the utterly distinctive voice that delivers them and to the propulsive accompaniment of an insistent rhythm and unforgettable melodies.
Bob Dylan has always been the master of reinvention. The Minnesota country boy who came to New York’s Greenwich village, the Jewish outsider who became a born-again Christian, he has never stood still but remade himself throughout a career that is now over half a century old. The most radical was his decision to tour Europe in the mid 1960s and only play his beloved acoustic folk songs in the first half; in the second he defiantly strapped on an electric guitar and joined by his amped up backing group the Band launched into what sounded to many a cacophony and an act of desecration. Dylan played every night of that European tour (which included dates in Dublin and Belfast) to a consistent wall of boos and hisses and the odd cry of “Judas”. He did not flinch in the face of his audience’s hostility and carried through alternating acoustic with electric to the end. Asked about it in the Martin Scorsese documentary, he replied: ‘Yeah, I heard them, the booing, every night. But, you know, you can be killed with too much kindness.’ Dylan has always stayed true to his mercurial muse. This prize is richly deserved and overdue.
Anthony Roche is Professor Emeritus, School of English, Drama and Film, UCD
All I can say is: I think that it’s a ridiculous decision, and an insult to real poets. Dylan is like any other songwriter. His words have no purchase without the music. And even in that context, is he any better than Paul Simon or Tom Waits?
Edna Longley is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland
The thing about Dylan, as with Leonard Cohen, is that the words are so much better than the music - I spent years trying to hear them through the drone of his sinuses. There was also the sour misogynistic edge of a man who is hard to love, which puts a distance between the listener and the song. A window opened, for me, with Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the Dylan of Blonde on Blonde in the movie I’m Not There. I saw the sharpness to his whimsy, the way bad religion and bad politics goaded him into a kind of visionary mess, and made him a prophet for his times. And once you “get” Dylan, you can’t get away.
Anne Enright is the Laureate for Irish Fiction. Her latest novel is The Green Road
He is an old-fashioned troubadour, a truth-teller, a lyric voice. He is smart, he is ready to change, he is clever and wise. His rhymes are often sublime, he has attitude. He is the real America, and Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens will be delighted and will travel with him to Stockholm. Not to speak of Woody Guthrie.
Colm Toibin’s latest novel is Nora Webster
Don DeLillo must have spat in someone’s soup! Ah no, I think it’s great really - I mean you can’t say that he hasn’t moved people with his words, and he’s a great advert for where sitting around with a lump of hash in a Greenwich Village coffee bar can get you. Seriously, though, I think his work is a good example of the text being more important than the form; the form itself doesn’t matter, all that matters is the talent.
Kevin Barry’s latest novel is Beatlebone
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
I’m delighted with this choice. It’s popular, rather than populist - though I guess there’s an element of that involved to: it certainly suggests that the Nobel Prize is getting less snobby. There is, I believe, a requirement in Nobel’s will that the winners be people who have ‘benefited mankind’, and in literature, have produced ‘outstanding work in an ideal direction’ - usually I think interpreted as ‘idealistic’. Dylan certainly ticks the boxes.There has never been a requirement as to genre but the prize has obviously been awarded exclusively to writers of ‘high literature.’ I regret that a writer of crime fiction, such as the outstanding Henning Mankell, never got it, or a writer of children’s literature, like Astrid Lindgren. But this choice is brilliant and one wonders if it is delivering a timely hint to the United States ( and to all of us) that said US is a country of great artists and noble idealists? Since we might be forgiven for thinking it a land of barbarians, just at this moment in history. The main reason I am happy about the choice is that I love Bob Dylan and will now feel entitled to enjoy a Dylan-fest for a few weeks. And hey, what a great Nobel banquet it will be this year, with (I hope!) a (new?? wouldn’t that be something?) song from Dylan rather than a boring speech.
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne is a writer and critic
Everybody knows that Western traditions of literature have long included bards and troubadours from the Welsh, Scots, Irish, Andalusian, and Provençal verse-makers to Shakespeare, whose plays included lyrics. People who only experience poetry on the page might dissent, but this Nobel award is a way of bringing it all back home, of both reminding us of poetry's roots and moving it forward though changing times - and for that, we should all be pleased.
Don Share is editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago
When trying to decide if song lyrics - even vivid plangent song lyrics - are actually poetry, the problem one faces is that without music they often die on the page. The music of the 1960s, that potent mix of folk, protest, rock and ballad, produced exceptional lyrics, particularly in the songs of Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and of course Bob Dylan. Of them all, Dylan is the most costive. There is a harshness, sometimes even a cruelty, in his depictions of love and love lost, as in 'Like a Rolling Stone' and his political songs are searing. But they haunt the imagination and the memory. Yet are they poems? When you listen to Simon & Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence, the language seems terribly powerful, but when you read the same words, they seem portentous and flat. Perhaps only Shakespeare can perfectly blend poetry and song, and it is a little late to give him the Nobel prize. However if anyone comes close, it must be Bob Dylan, who has touched what we like to call the zeitgeist with more surety than any other song writer in living memory, and whose lyrics are often startlingly beautiful. (My own favourite Dylan song is the diatribe on Hurricane Carter in jail.)
John Montague is a poet and critic
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the ‘60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the ‘70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to find Jesus, and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ‘90s. Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”
These were the words used, concert after concert, to introduce both the myth and the real presence. They first appeared in The Buffalo News and, as a daft pen-portrait, they clearly tickled Bob. Not that he ever broke into a fit of giggles as the lights went up - the mask would have been very firmly affixed by then - but nevertheless it was joke shared with the faithful - myself among their number since the age of about thirteen.
Back then Bob Dylan unleashed a torrent of words and music into my tiny little world - my bedroom that is - a place of little else. He became my teacher, my smart companion, my exotic uncle from America and I listened to every word he said. I learned without study. I sang along. And when he wasn’t around himself I sang the songs on my own. If a poets’ job is to provide a momentary stay against confusion, he was the first true poet I ever knew.
Dylan might well have been awarded the Nobel Prize a very long time ago. But to receive it now, at 75, seems entirely perfect. It’s an acknowledgment not just of the cascading, culture-rattling genius of the early days, but of the later works too - just as brilliant and often even better. Not to mention the extraordinary and surely unreliable memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. And if I had my way he’d get another Nobel for his radio show.
There’s little doubt that 2016 has been a bad year for music fans (and it’s far from over yet) but it feels like an actual relief to see Dylan, in particular, celebrated in this way while he’s still with us. And we’re still with him. But will he show up? Will he say much? And will he hit them with my favourite lines?
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster
On a freshers’ night out in Galway, I asked the visiting dj if he would play a Bob Dylan song, possibly something off Oh Mercy. This was in 1990, and Dylan was my gateway to Ginsberg and the Beats, Sly and Robbie, The Fugs, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen and the rest. I was enthusiastic and insistent, I hadn’t been to a Dylan concert yet. The DJ, Dave Fanning, whose show had introduced me to so much of Dylan’s music, must have been used to such requests and he was not unsympathetic when he gave a long look at the packed dancefloor and said, “A nightclub’s not the place for a Dylan song”.
Which is a little bit like how I feel about the Literature Nobel Prize going to Dylan. Although awarding the prize to this great, mysterious shapeshifter of a songwriter will not stop me listening to Street Legal, or John Wesley Harding, or the 300-song Dylan playlist I frequent on Spotify, and I might even try to finish Tarantula again, or the Patrick Modiano backlist I started reading around this time a couple of years ago.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book,The Way In, is published by Gallery Press. He is chief poetry critic for The Irish Times and teaches at Manchester University
Aged 17 in 1966 I spent a lot of time copying out in longhand the words of various Dylan songs (Mr Tambourine Man, To Ramona, One Too Many Mornings come to mind) and trying thereby to convince my English teacher, a brilliant cynic called Mr Baum, that we were dealing with a serious poet. I got nowhere with him but I haven’t wavered in my opinion, and a half-century later, vindication has arrived. I only wish Mr Baum were here to see it.
Roy Foster has recently retired as Carroll Professor of Irish History at Hertford College, Oxford
What a surprise that was. Some of his songs warm my soul in a way the best poetry can, so I suppose he’s a poet. Shelter from the Storm is poetry. Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright is pretty perfect, too. His extended narratives, like Tangled up in Blue, make you reach for replay over and over; something new is revealed each time. The world needed Bob Dylan and still does.
Donal Ryan’s latest novel is All We Shall Know
“Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?”, wrote Robert Zimmerman, and now we know the answer. Minstrel, bard, troubadour, Dylan is part of an ancient poetic tradition in which the low art/high art distinction dissolves. The Nobel Prize Committee’s references to Homer and Sappho are well grounded. Poetry has always been a broad church, and Dylan is the poet laureate of a mythic America. His family were immigrants of Turkish and Lithuanian Jewish origin, and he was born in the great nowhere of Duluth, Minnesota. He headed to New York, and as readers of his brilliantly-written autobiography will know, he carefully, self-consciously learned from Brecht, the Clancy Brothers, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, Woody Guthrie and, above all, the great folk poetry of the heartland, the country and blues he had been infused with as a youth, pouring out of the radio stations. Out of these influences he fashioned a verbal and musical idiom which produced poetic masterpieces like Blood on the Tracks, and which was universal in its range. But his worldwide popularity should not be held against him. He never pandered to popular taste or demands for so-called accessibility, preferring to go his own way in pursuit of his gift. Dylan’s Nobel Prize cannot be used to argue that poetry should be popular, or accessible, or even comprehensible to the great mass of people. TS Eliot wrote what he had to write, as did Dylan, as did Geoffrey Hill and Leonard Cohen, Seamus Heaney and Van Morrison.
It is often argued that all Nobel Literature Prizes are political, and certainly a few years ago there was a rumpus around a perceived anti-American bias. Some of us would have loved to see Don DeLillo win, but in these difficult times for America, this prize could be seen as a salute to another, better America, the one we love, the one we in Europe grew up in, and which we still like to drift around in.
There is only one possible downside; I worry that at this stage many aspiring young Irish poets are taking down their guitars and brushing up their three chords. But let’s leave the final words to the Minstrel himself:
She opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
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
Tangled up in blue
Michael O’Loughlin is a poet and critic
I don’t consider Bob Dylan a poet. I do consider him a good songwriter, and a brilliant literary magpie. Much has been made of his tendencies to lift - from Nelson Algren’s book on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Henry Timrod’s poetry but it depends on the intention and if you’re doing something original with your appropriation, and I think Dylan always does, the same way Beyoncé did in sampling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and quoting poet Warsan Shire. Dylan’s book Chronicles - I’m reluctant to use “autobiography” here because there are some wonderful fabrications in it - is not without flashes of genius, but a more interesting Nobel winner for me would have been Leonard Cohen. That said, as an editor of a journal that is all for transgressing boundaries and exploring the potential of writing, I’m genuinely surprised and more than a little delighted that a traditional body such as the Academy is, by choosing Dylan, expanding the very definition of literature. I think it’s a brave and appropriate choice.
Susan Tomaselli is editor of gorse magazine
Well, we all have our favourites and Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been my choice of poet for the Nobel. I would have given it to the great modernist Syrian poet Adonis, who revolutionised poetry in Arabic and has been a dynamic and controversial figure in the art for over half a century. His poem Music (in Mattawa’s translation - from a book itself shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize) contains the line, “In this house an immigrant lives and his name is meaning” which I have quoted many times in this country in the past couple of years. He works in an enormous range of styles and forms as well as being an artist who has exhibited across Europe and the Middle East. I thought Adonis would win the Nobel in 2011 when it went to Tomas Tranströmer, whose work Adonis has done so much to make known in the Arab world, but maybe Adonis’ time will come some day, though as he’s 86, I hope that day comes soon.
Congratulations to Bob Dylan, however. Begrudging his words the support of music, as some literary purists are doing, seems as odd as begrudging the playwright her resources of lighting, sets and actors. What I like about Dylan’s work is how it shows so proudly the contributions of many US musical traditions, including several that arrived with immigrants, as well as being alert and permeable to the common world and politics in ways I find wholly admirable. His ability to recreate himself is a distinguishing feature of many great poets such as Yeats, one of Dublin’s own three Nobel Laureates. Having no alcohol, Yeats and his wife celebrated his Nobel with sausages and I wish Bob at least a couple of sausages tonight.
Ian Duhig’s latest collection is The Blind Roadmaker
We got our first family record player at Christmas 1968 and some months later a classmate lent me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. I kept it for weeks, rushing home from school to listen to it over and over again. It became the soundtrack to my homework!
That much-played record first alerted me to the power of words and the images and ideas they carry. Dylan later captured the feeling I had when he sang that “every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal”.
I have never forgotten how enthralling I found his voice, his songs and even the way he looked on those iconic album covers. His songs offered a window on the world which I lapped up enthusiastically. Only my discovery of Yeats’s work could compare with the impact on me of Mr Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone and Subterranean Homesick Blues. Dylan’s Nobel Prize seems like a belated vindication of all those hours spent listening to his records!
I have maintained an interest in Dylan through all the twists and turns of his career and enjoyed seeing him again last year when the angry troubadour of the 1960s had morphed into a delightfully quirky crooner of tunes from the Great American Songbook. Long may he reign.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to Britain
They used to play Hurricane at Pres Glasthule teenage disco in the late seventies. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t like Desire, the album it came from; in the jagged, restless era of the Clash, it was too redolent of gypsy earrings and joss sticks and patchouli oil. A friend’s elder brother had lent me Blood on the Tracks, that sombre, mid-life masterpiece I would later come to love, but I didn’t really know what to make of it then (like youth, and Chekhov, Blood on the Tracks is wasted on the young). And a bearded, clog-shod religion teacher had led me to associate early Dylan with the neutered piety of the folk Mass. But from the moment I heard the first snare hit of Like A Rolling Stone I was hooked: Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Bringing it All Back Home were the records I fell hard for. Pre-motorcycle crash Bob of the amphetamine cheekbones and the wild mercury sound, shards of malice and mysterious tenderness melded into a glittering whole by an artist at his most possessed. Bile has never seemed more beautiful in lines like
“I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you”;
(Positively 4th Street)
“You’ve been through all of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books,
You’re very well read, it’s well known,
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?”
(Ballad of a Thin Man)
The widescreen glamour (as in enchantment) of Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums) remains as potent as ever, while Visions of Johanna’s glorious delirium boasts one of the greatest openers of all time - “Ain’t it just like the night, playing tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?” - and, for me, Dylan’s greatest single line:
“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”
He contains multitudes. Like Shakespeare (and it’s hard to think of any other artist who could sustain that comparison), the work has such extraordinary range and scope: complex, popular art that is inexhaustible and enduring. Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate. For all the acclaim across the years, it still feels like something has shifted in the firmament.
Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright
Well done to the troubadour Bob Dylan for winning the Swedish Gold medal in Literature this year. As my nan never used to say, though it’s something she could’ve said, he’s not really my cup of tea. But he’s lots of folks cuppa, so fair play. Actually, my folks had lots of his stuff on vinyl, the covers of which always seemed to feature (in my memory at least) an enlarged close up of Bob’s face in some iteration of a pensive scowl (always a distant, glassy look in his eyes, that was probably, I know realize, the lysergics). He looked a bit like my bachelor farmer uncle up the road. It was the hair. Dylan always looked like his head had been dragged through a ditch for a bit, and so did my uncle’s. Dylan’s dress sense was very different - the Uncle favoured black or navy wool pullovers no matter the weather, Dylan always seemed to be dressed in some flamboyant play on an indigenous peoples outfit: patterned ponchos, fur stoles etc, an oiled mustache teased into erected points at either end. I was very young. Might of been artwork from a different artist, come to think of it, but I’m pretty sure it was Dylan.
Colin Barrett is the author of Young Skins
“I don’t know if you read the headline about Bob Dylan getting stopped by the cops in, I think it was New Jersey or something, in the States a few months ago because they thought he was a vagrant. He was walking down the street with his hood up, looking at the neighbourhood.” - Jeremy Gara, Arcade Fire, 2010.
There’s something perfect about the image of a future Nobel Laureate getting hustled into a car by a twenty-something police officer, a scenario that could’ve been plucked from the grooves of Neon Bible or some dystopian novel: the prophet or truth-teller astray in a strange age, interrogated by over-zealous law enforcement in a land where, as Burroughs said, nobody is allowed mind his own business, let alone embark on an aimless walk through a New Jersey suburb after dark. In the 21st century, anyone breaching the cultural curfew is cause for paranoia. And in 2016, year of horror and farce, it feels like we’re living inside Highway 61 Revisted.
What’s easy to forget about Dylan is that way, way back before poetry and posterity and presidential medals and Kennedy Centre awards and Nobel prizes, he was a snot-nose kid fresh off the bus from Hibbing, Minnesota to New York City, Little Bobby Zimmerman who’d steal your Little Richard records when you weren’t looking, an ingénue, a two-bit half-pint hustling for a gig, part James Dean, Charlie Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, trying on noms de plume, trying on masks, trying on clothes that didn’t fit him yet.
Almost overnight he changed into an electric skeleton, typing like a maniac inside a womb of smoke and speedy visions in hotel rooms, dressing rooms, backstage rooms in ‘65 and ‘66. Surreal songs, surrural songs, day-glo visions of comedy and dread that extricated their author, Houdini-like, from the protest singer’s hairshirt, clothed him in a Technicolor dreamcoat. Fifty years down the line and no matter where you are, he’s there, hood pulled up, eyes like satellites, does not miss a trick.
Lately I’d been thinking about the use of Dylan’s songs in Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a film that is at once shallow and surface-perfect, in synch and sycophantic. But, for all its faults, the film has a strange integrity. There’s a way to look at Watchmen like it’s a lament for the demise of popular music as a force for good. The old gods, the superheroes and superheroines, have become dissolute, or morally bankrupt, or lost their way in a middle-age fug, or sold out to The Man. Dylan’s words operate as the film’s good and bad conscience: Times They Are A Changing. Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower, My Chemical Romance’s souped-up, Sex Pistols-y version of Desolation Row, a gleeful act of iconoclasm.
The first time I saw Dylan play was at Slane Castle in 1984. He stalked onstage and rollicked into Highway 61 Revisited like some backwoods evangelist decked out in a zebra-print shirt, big boots and frock coat, heavily mascara’d and face caked in orange pancake. He looked bizarre and mythic, like something out of Blood Meridian. The last time I saw him was more than ten years ago, at the Point, December 2005. Arthritis had confined him to the piano, but he summoned magic maybe a half dozen times over the course of a 105-minute show that began with an intro so over-the-top it had to be a piss-take (“Ladies and gentlemen, the voice of the 60s counterculture, rock’s poet laureate who receded into drug addled haze, found God etc… would you please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”). That night he sang a version of Visions Of Johanna, that seemed to stop clocks, a kind of goodnight-moon lullaby delivered by Father Time.
All art aspires to the condition of music. Songs like Mr Tambourine Man and It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) and Blind Willie McTell and Series of Dreams and Desolation Row are, whether spoken or sung, great works. And in an age when art has been strip-mined, sold out and set afire, it’s good to see a poet can still get garlanded.
Peter Murphy is author of John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River
Everyone who has ever awarded or won a prize knows that they’re unjust. They just are. That’s the nature of prizes. But the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan is more than unjust. It is absurd. It’s a category error. It’s like a race horse winning Crufts.
I love Bob Dylan almost as much as I love Leonard Cohen. But Dylan is a singer-songwriter and singer-songwriters should be awarded prizes for singer-songwriters - of which there are many.
If the judging panel wanted to award the Nobel Prize to an American author there are lots to choose from: Thomas Pynchon and Lydia Davis spring immediately to mind. Or everyone’s favourite - or perhaps everyone’s least favourite - Philip Roth. Or if they wanted an Irish winner, how about William Trevor? The Korean poet Ko Un? Amos Oz? But Bob Dylan? Really? Bob Dylan? What next? Donald Trump for President of the United States of America? CATEGORY ERROR.
Ian Sansom is an author, critic and the new director of Trinity College Dublin’s Oscar Wilde Centre
Katherine A Powers
To be perfectly blunt, I have always loathed Bob Dylan as a “poet” - fellow Minnesotan though he may be. I think his lyrics are banal and every time I am subjected to them I am reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of “platitude”-“A thought that snores in words that smoke.” Most of my friends think he’s the cat’s whiskers and that is something I will never understand. I am stunned that this poetaster could be placed alongside such true geniuses of language, thought, and feeling as Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky. Perhaps these indeed are the Latter Days.
Katherine A Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of JF Powers, 1942-1963
This is completely wrong, of course. Dylan’s reputation will hardly benefit from the Swedish Academy’s imprimatur, and his bank account doesn’t need the money. Last year’s award, to Svetlana Alexievich, was useful not only in honouring an underrecognised writer but in ratifying the art of non-fiction. Perhaps the Academy wanted to knock down another artificial barrier this year, but it feels gratuitous - Dylan has been drowning in glory for over half a century.
I have no difficulty, though, with the idea that Dylan is (or was) a very great poet. Does Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands hold up as well in cold print as Sailing to Byzantium? I don’t know and I don’t care. Each poet finds his or her own medium. In the medium of pop music, which has probably brought more poetry to more people than any other, I don’t think anyone else has come even close to what Dylan did in his astonishing psychedelic rush of 1965 and 1966: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Did his musicianship - which is strangely underrated - give the lyrics an alchemical lift? Of course it did. Do the brilliant players and producers that he worked with deserve much of the credit for the great recordings? Of course they do. But poetry - or literature, if we must use that word - does not exist in a vacuum, or shouldn’t. Dylan’s poetry, at its best, electrified everything it touched - and now, clearly, it has caused the Swedish Academy to go a little bit crazy.
Brendan Barrington is Editor at Penguin Ireland and editor of The Dublin Review
‘The poet’, as Yeats famously observed, ‘is not the bundle of accidents that sits down at the breakfast table.’ Meaning, for one thing, that the poet is more than the sum of the parts he has in common with the rest of us. Where Dylan is concerned, it’s the whole package that makes up his poetic presence, not his lyric gift, or his music, or indeed his voice, but the effect that these have when teamed up to produce their singular effect. And of course the effect is calculated, in no way accidental; his covers of the so-called Great American songbook are only the most recent reminder of this, and are also reminders that his own lyrics are not necessarily fundamental to the effect he has in mind.
Still, to talk about a Dylan number’s overall impact risks ignoring one very obvious feature of it. The music is plain. But the words are another story. There’s always a pull between the confines of a traditional tune and the extravagances and obscurities of the lyrics. It’s this pull that the voice registers and tries to negotiate, as much as to say there is this common reservoir of song – hymns, hollers, love songs, death songs; traditional songs that repeatedly go over the things in life that are so difficult to face and so terribly well known – but at the same time the possibility of looking at such matter anew in your own way and with the resources of your own heart and head. Dylan’s language continually affirms this possibility. Which, I suppose, is one description of not only the poet’s task, but why having such figures around is a good thing. The language is the experiment which the music safeguards, or provides for.
Another thing is that, like a lot of twentieth-century poets, Dylan is inclined to venture closer to those accidents Yeats mentioned. And in Dylan’s case, like many others, this accounts for the enigmas and perplexities of his lyrics. ‘There must be some way out of here’, but what it might be can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, be very easy to pin down, and conveys different things to different people – ask Jimi Hendrix. The lyrics are engrossing because they enact the difficulties more than just describe them; in that way, their rhetoric reproduces the restlessness with which they so often attempt to come to grips. Relying on personae to carry the burden of concern is part of the performance too, an age-old poetic strategy, of course, but one that is also refreshed by the words articulating it.
When Wordsworth said that a poem should be written ‘in the language of men’, he not only initiated a poetic revolution. He also had a pretty well defined notion of what both ‘language’ and ‘men’ meant. Now, though, we think of those terms as though they’re plurals. This is perhaps a somewhat destabilizing development, but it’s also a democratizing one and an experimental one. Nowhere more so than in America, home of not only Walt Whitman’s ‘democratic yawp’ but of Dylan’s complete yet faithful re-orchestration of it. And I suppose you might say that the experiment consists of trying to ascertain how many roads a man must go down – that, and how he might go down it, starting off, as so many of his fellow men, not only in America but wherever Dylan is heard, ‘in the jingle-jangle morning’ of our inscrutable consciousnesses. Eliot? Pound? I wouldn’t put Dylan with them. There’s no need. He’s out on his own anyway.
George O'Brien is a writer and critic
Picture this. It’s 1967, Belfast, in what would be called upper north side in the US. The neighbourhood is very ‘mixed’. All forms of Protestantism - from the imposing Church of Ireland to sturdy Presbyterian and Methodist churches to evangelical halls of worship; Catholic, Jewish and (I dare say) private religions which we knew nothing about at the time. The streetscape is traditional urban: main thoroughfares which sweep down from the high rise of the Antrim hills into the city centre; overlooking the horseshoe of the Lough and the far side of east Belfast, now the industrial hub of Belfast since most of the mills of the west have closed or are closing. The houses range from villas set in their own wooded grounds and lawns to discrete avenues of fine double-fronted three or four storied red brick houses with small enough gardens out front but long strips of land out back, to more modest terraces built at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, mirroring the larger houses, with stained glass windows on the landings, and yards instead of gardens. Behind them a network of ‘between the wars’ housing, decent, compact, with their own square of garden, backing on to uncultivated fields and the start of a new estate of about forty custom built homes for the newly prosperous working young couples in their twenties and early thirties. The rising generation, that is, married in the sixties, with great expectations in mind of a good life.
In one of the older houses, in the front room that looks out on to a busy arterial road, which is one of the main links between the city centre and the flourishing suburban hinterland, two young lads are staring through the large fronted bay window, as cars and buses, vans and deliveries (laundry, bread, milk, coal, you name it), window cleaners, piano tuners, hedge cutters, painters and decorators, move up and down, passing men and women walking the avenue, going about their own every day business. The two lads are looking out the bay window while the room is utterly filled with the sound of Bob Dylan at full tilt.
No one is in the entire house but themselves. They may be smoking Sobraine cigarettes, or Olivier, or Nelson or, if things are a bit tight, the deadly Woodbine or Park Drive. They could be listening to any one of Dylan’s albums from the early 1960s - Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was a favourite - or one of the more recent releases such as Blonde on Blonde, the mind-shifting sound of John Wesley Harding or Nashville Skyline.
In a couple of years time, by about 1971, it had all changed, more or less, as Belfast, and in particular, the ‘mixed’ district in which those two young men had grown up, was pitched into ‘The Troubles’ and the life of the avenues and streets, the terraces and lane ways, turned ever inwards.
For a substantial section of the post Second World War generation, growing up in the Sixties, Dylan was the transcendent voice, his lyrics and restless eye on contemporary life recorded the travails, expectations, anxieties and hopes about the big world of which, along with millions of others, those two lads felt themselves to be a curious questioning part.
‘I was born in the spring in 1941’, writes Dylan. ‘The Second World War was already raging in Europe, and America would soon be in it. The world was being blown apart and chaos was already driving its fist into the face of all new visitors. If you were born around this time or, were living and alive, you could feel the old world go and the new one beginning’.
Even when many of the American terms of reference passed people by, Dylan’s un-heroic, wry, urbane, sardonic intelligence sounded very familiar and the opening towards sensitivity (indeed sentiment) which his songs and music offered, remains ‘forever young’, forty or so years later. Reading the first volume of his marvellous Chronicles, a classic memoir, has the same impact. It describes a world that has gone and a ‘lifestyle’, commitment, and experience which is also, probably, no longer possible in the market-driven, niche-determined, global village of Anglo-American popular culture.
Chronicles is, quite simply, a book that reaches far beyond the (albeit) vast base of Dylan fans. It stands on its own literary merits as a fascinating imaginative portrait of America, its ethnically diverse neighbourhoods of naturalised emigrants (such as Dylan’s own grandparents), its hopes and assumptions, turned upside down by the (there is no other word for it) obsessional fascination of a young boy with folk music and the journey which took him from Hibbing, Minnesota via the Village, Manhattan, on an never-ending tour, performing and recording his own songs and music before the world stage.
It was, and is, an obsession with folk music that straddles all kinds of music - from black, ‘roots’ or ‘race’ music, as it was once called, to country music and all the way through to political ballads and the traditional. As he recounts in Chronicles Dylan learnt it all - and I do mean ‘all’. His story is literally crammed with songs.
At times when he moves into the theosophy of guitar playing and song structures (‘a highly controlled system of playing’ which the reader can discover for his or her self on page 157), there is the strongest hint of self-parody. But the re-creation of city life in fifties and sixties New York, the sheer poetic intensity with which he recaptures his own experiences of that world as an outsider, is second to none. This is writing of the highest order indeed and one can only nod at the surprise expressed by various ‘literary’ figures that Dylan could actually produce such a work.
There is, too, at the very centre of Chronicles a tragic note, a sense of the madness of the political world and a rage that, contradictory as it sounds, took Dylan away from the familiar and habitual world of his upbringing into the fickle intensity of the world’s media and the mess that we know as ‘celebrity’.
If Dylan were a poet or novelist he would have been a Nobel laureate by now. When you read Chronicles just keep in the back of your mind any one of the hundreds of great songs which he has written. For me, for starters, it’s ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ which I still hear as if for the first time, and the staggering, peer-less, ‘Masters of War’. Dylan is truly unique; the story he has told in Chronicles universal. As Sean O Hagan, remarked in the Observer, ‘even in his seventh decade, Dylan is the great enigmatic genius of our time; beyond pop, beyond rock, beyond any label you dare pin on him’.
From Catching the Light (Salmon Press 2008). Gerald Dawe is a poet and professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin
Dylan’s sense of writerly pace and narrative, and his poet’s feeling for words, are evident all through his remarkable career. One fine example would be his song The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. First of all, there’s the exceptionally skilful economy of the storytelling, the lack of any scaffolding. The opening words state the inciting incident of the story: “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll”. The song goes on to tell a powerful and quite detailed narrative (based on a factual event) in only 419 words.
Then, there’s the song’s supple (and subtle) use of detail and images: the cane sailing through the air, the children who empty the ashtrays ‘on a whole other level’, the judge ‘spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished’. Note the intense and continuous movement in the story: we start ‘at a Baltimore hotel society gathering’ but a mere two lines later we’re ‘down to the [POLICE]station’. Soon afterwards we’re shown ‘a tobacco farm of six hundred acres’ provided to a young privileged man of 24 by his wealthy and influential parents. From there, we are drawn into the very different world that Hattie Carroll and her ten children inhabit: she is ‘a maid of the kitchen’, so lowly that she is not even permitted to speak to the people at the table. Finally, we move to yet a further location, the courtroom. In the space of a few dozen lines, Dylan moves us around the important scenes and settings of the story, almost as a movie director would do. And the state of mind of the storyteller is very much a part of this story. His anger is suppressed all the way through, until the very end: ‘Now is the time for your tears’. The discipline of the song is in many ways remarkable. It never tells us, for example, that Hattie Carroll is an African-American woman but the lyric allows you to discern it.
The song has so much to teach about the importance of movement in storytelling, the power of the extended phrase. It’s notable how Dylan makes his sentences unusually long, using many ‘ands’, so as to involve you and draw you in. Each verse begins with a sentence that will in fact continue through a half dozen lines, and in each case the sentence ends with a statement on which he places immense moral weight.
VERSE ONE: ‘…And booked William Zanzinger for first degree murder.’
VERSE TWO: ‘…And in a manner of minutes on bail was out walkin’’
VERSE THREE: ‘…And she never done nothin’ to William Zanzinger’
VERSE FOUR: ‘…William Zanzinger with a six month sentence.’
Hattie Carroll is a wonderful lesson in literary craft because it is constantly unrolling, moving and evolving, using assonance and alliteration as Gerard Manley Hopkins so often does, but pointing a finger at a wrong. It’s only one of dozens of Dylan songs that are also exceptionally accomplished short stories. He’s a wizard of the English language.
Joseph O’Connor is a novelist and is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick
Martin Doyle is assistant literary editor of The Irish Times