Bob Dylan could tackle changing times in Nobel speech

This weekend, the literary giant will be celebrated at the Nobel prize-giving ceremony. He harnesses the power of language like nobody else

Bob Dylan performing in 1993: he “widened the scope of poetry more successfully than many of the Beat poets”. Photograph: EPA

Bob Dylan performing in 1993: he “widened the scope of poetry more successfully than many of the Beat poets”. Photograph: EPA

 

I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver
And I’m reading James Joyce
Some people they tell me
I got the blood of the land in my voice

For those still wondering why Bob Dylan received this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, those lines from a verse of I Feel A Change Comin’ On may contain the answer or at least Dylan’s own answer.

For the past 50 years he has been his country’s living Walt Whitman. Like the 19th century bard, who also happened to have the blood of the land in his voice, Dylan pours everything and anything into his work and sings in multiple and various voices.

As his homeland contained multitudes, he knew that, like Whitman, he had to encompass those multitudes. So too did Carl Sandburg, a poet once described as the voice of America, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry but who was also a folk singer and song collector, and to whom Dylan made one of his earliest pilgrimages.

Like both of those eminent contributors to the US’s literary canon, Dylan had an original ear for picking up whatever was in the ether and relaying it back to us in often surprising and startling imagery.

Even in a very early song such as The Death of Emmett Till, we find a line like, “Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust”, an example of his move toward poetic utterance; even the oracular was to follow in songs such as Highway 61 Revisited. His use of quite visceral language transcended the boundaries of ordinary song.

Whitman was, of course, thinking of himself when, in the shadow of the civil war, he wrote that the United States “with veins full of poetical stuff” needed poets and that “Presidents shall not be their [the US’s] common referee so much as their poets shall”.

Dylan, less than 100 years later, became such a “referee poet” and in a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone magazine said he saw himself as “poet, singer, songwriter, custodian, gatekeeper”. He connected with and tapped into the amplitude of the American experience and heartland in visionary compositions and anthems, sometimes even in Whitmanesque language:

Get out in to your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep down deep in your souls
(Let Me Die in My Footsteps, 1962)

First, he gave us the Guthrie-influenced songs of protest and social comment, as well as extraordinary love songs such as Boots of Spanish Leather and the precocity of My Back Pages; then came the surge of electric surrealism and Dylan becoming an American Rimbaud sailing that “magic swirling ship” and on to a Frost-like lyric simplicity with John Wesley Harding and the rustic wistfulness of New Morning.

Above all else, he had the knack for telling a story; again and again he returned to the narrative ballad with cinematic epics such as Desolation Row, Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, Black Diamond Bay, Brownsville Girl, Tweeter and the Monkey Man, High Water (For Charley Patton) and Scarlet Town.

Citing the lesser-known Mississippi, the singer Sheryl Crow has likened his writing to that of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck, two authors whose work is grounded in the idea of “America”.

When the Nobel prize was announced in October, the old argument resurfaced: is he really a poet or “merely” a songwriter? There were sceptics and dissenters and, in some criticism of the Nobel committee, even an echo of what Eliot said about Whitman, that art “had strayed dangerously far from its vital origin”.

While he may not be a poet in the conventional sense, the consensus among poets and writers was for endorsement of the honour with many giving the nod to his poetic identity and literary credentials.

From the start Dylan was capable of harnessing the power of language in a way that set him apart. This was evident on the early songs of political and social protest and, later, dynamically so with the more personal songs on his lacerating masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks.

It will be interesting to see what scholars uncover when they get to scrutinise the notebooks of songs for that album, which are part of the Dylan archive in the University of Tulsa, an institution that, incidentally, also houses a Joyce archive as well the papers of Woody Guthrie.

In March this year, the New York Times presciently described Tulsa’s acquisition of the trove a as “a further step in the canonisation of Mr Dylan, now 74, as not just a musical icon but also an American literary giant”.

He widened the scope of poetry more successfully than many of the Beat poets who were his contemporaries and with whom he became identified. The wide range of references – biblical, literary, historical, topographical, musical – not only illuminates his work but gives it true measure.

When Sinclair Lewis, another Minnesotan and the first US writer to receive the Nobel prize, went to Stockholm in 1930, he delivered an acceptance speech that was profoundly critical of his country, describing it as “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring of any land in the world today”.

While Dylan won’t be present at the prize ceremony, he has sent a speech to the Nobel committee. It is an opportunity to present his views on times that again are a-changin’ or to elaborate on his remark in a 2009 Rolling Stone interview that he didn’t “think the dream of Whitman has ever been fulfilled”. But will he take it?

Gerard Smyth is Poetry Editor. His most recent poetry collection is A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press). A suite of poems about Co Meath, The Yellow River, with paintings and drawings by artist Sean McSweeney, will be published by Solstice Arts Centre in January

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