Declan Kiberd on Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature

Mr Tambourine Man is arguably the most pirated pirate in the history of modern music

Maybe it should have been for music. Or style. Or sheer survival. But he got it for literature and that seems about right.

Some say his lyrics are nothing without the music that goes with them.

But you could say the same about the songs of Sir Thomas Wyatt or Shakespeare.

On Raglan Road was written to an old melody but it reads just fine.

So do the Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake or the quatrains of Emily Dickinson, even though many were written to the music of the Protestant hymnal.

Our own national poet, WB Yeats, was tone-deaf, yet nobody would deny the musicality of his lines. The Waterboys beautifully released the cadences, rhythms and lilt hidden beneath his poetry.

In ancient times, bards recited their work to the plucking of a stringed instrument, sometimes called a psaltery.

Dylan’s “talking songs” of the 1960s simply reconnected these separated traditions.

Mind you, if anyone back then had predicted that the author of the meandering prose monstrosity Tarantula would one day receive a Nobel for Literature, he or she would have been laughed to scorn.

Yet, Dylan would eventually produce Chronicles, one of the greatest memoirs of a lifetime in music – filled with tender irony, sly honesty and lyric intelligence. At one point in it, he remarks that the author of Ulysses was clearly a lord of language but, what he was saying, Bob just could not fathom.

Many have had similar difficulties with Gates of Eden or Like a Rolling Stone.

Protest generation

Dylan used the ironic title Chronicles to challenge a merely chronological account of things.

Instead of a start-to-finish narrative, he offered one structured around those mysterious moments when inspiration came and when it just as unaccountably left him.

Not much about the life, the wife, the strife – but a lot about the work. And what work!

If Dylan were simply the voice of a protest generation, he would now seem historical: but he was much more.

His lines didn’t just report emotions – they invented them: “Louise she’s all right, she’s just near/ She’s delicate or seems like Vermeer” (or is that “like the mirror”?)

Dylan has never told anyone how to feel. He simply makes himself a channel for the entire song tradition. In discovering all those authors without, he unleashes the creator within.

By allowing others sing through him, he has learned how to sing the song of himself. Early on he, showed that humility in the face of tradition which is necessary for art.

There is something arrogant about that humility, just as there has always been something humble about his arrogance.

He is arguably the most pirated pirate in the history of modern music. Nobody who listened to the double album Blonde on Blonde in 1966 could fathom it. The words sounded like they were coming from another planet, in a strange language that might take decades to find a translator.

Gibberish

Dylan, like TS Eliot before him, had to risk writing gibberish in order to write anything at all.

Eliot once said that poetry must communicate before it is understood, that it hits the feelings before it touches the mind.

That is precisely how Visions of Johanna works – "In this room the heat-pipes just cough." Nor would it be outrageous to invoke WB Yeats.

Eliot saluted his fellow-Nobelist’s gift for remaining forever young, for discovering a new voice and style in each succeeding decade of his journey.

Having become early the master, said Eliot, Yeats had the gift thereafter to remain forever the contemporary. His history became the history of his age – as has Dylan’s, “together through life”.

Dylan was never over-impressed by prizes. He satirised the professors at Princeton University who gave him an honorary doctorate (in music!) back in 1970 – at around the same time when Samuel Beckett greeted his Nobel award with the phrase “what a catastrophe!”

When he was young, Dylan croaked like an old man. Now he is old, he croons (sometimes) like a boy. He is one of the last modernists, a figure whose career is based on Irving Howe’s aphorism: “Modernism must always struggle but never quite triumph, and then, after a time, must struggle in order not to triumph”.

How Dylan will wriggle out of his latest victory is anyone’s guess.

The royal halls of Stockholm have acclaimed many rebels who turned out to be superstraights: but the man from Hibbing, Minnesota is hardly likely to sell out now.

To the inevitable naysayers, he will repeat the old line: “You gotta lot of nerve . . . ”

Declan Kiberd teaches at the University of Notre Dame. His book After Ireland will be published by Head of Zeus next year.