“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was.”
It’s an interesting beginning of Bob Dylan’s lecture. In my introductory seminar to literary studies, I quite often do what I call “Literary Trivia”. In most cases, I would play the beginning of a song and ask for associations with English literature, with English authors. Even students in their first semester make these associations very quickly. You play “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel and students associate the lyrics with the Bible (“Jesus loves you more than you will know”), with Arthur Miller (“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio”)—because DiMaggio was married to Marilyn Monroe, as was Arthur Miller—, and, of course, with Defoe’s novel.
A couple of weeks ago, I played a Bob Dylan song and asked ideally for a Welsh poet, but if they couldn’t name one, I would accept the name of another poet. To my surprise students actually came up with Dylan Thomas. None of the students said, “Well, this Bob Dylan. He won the Nobel Prize for literature. His work must be literature then. He’s the poet.”
Despite the on-going convergence of media formats and diverse genres, people still seem to have a hard time letting go of overcome exclusive definitions of literature, poetry, narrative, film- and media texts. A recorded stage adaptation of Shakespeare would qualify as literature for most, but if they don’t know the author of a film script, they wouldn’t see literary qualities in the video recording. If Dylan Thomas sings his poetry, this is literature. If Bob Dylan sings his songs, this is not.
I don’t precisely know where this confusion, this unnecessary complicatedness stems from. Maybe schools have failed many of us in so far as they have established “literature” as something beautiful but ultimately very detached from us and our everyday endeavours. We listen to music all the time but this can never be literature, because literature is taught in schools, is complicated, needs to be analysed with care, and it is just too sublime. We stand in awe in front of literature and don’t know what to do with, let’s say Shakespeare, except the things we’ve learnt in school. Shakespeare’s texts may ask us to enjoy them, disagree and quarrel with them, invite us to become part of their discourse, but we stand in awe. We cannot move, we cannot make, we can not…
As far as I have understood the academy, giving the prize to Dylan is a sign (next to the underlying political idea in times of Trump, the Brexit, or generally spreading stupidity in politics and society) that they have understood that, in the times of the internet, the borders between genres and medialities have started to dissolve. It doesn’t matter that Dylan sings his poems. It didn’t in the past (Dylan Thomas) and does not in the present any longer (Bob Dylan).
Bob Dylan doesn’t seem to have fully understood this when he poses the question about the relation of his oeuvre to literature. He seems to support this take when he refers to the place of literature in his life: school:
“But I had something else as well. I had principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.”
He summarizes three books that have influenced him a lot. The tone of his summaries and associations and self-confessions is a bit brash. He doesn’t put the works onto pedestals. He takes a fresh look at them, seems to ignore that they are all canonical. In his summary of Moby Dick he writes, “[y]ou can anticipate what will happen”. As if none of us had ever read Melville.
In the end of his lecture, Dylan sees the parallels between what he perceives as literature and what he perceives as songs. He writes:
“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.
John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, ‘The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.’ I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.”
For Dylan the parallels between literature and songs run along the lines of effect, beauty and aesthetic influence—not meaning. In so far, he repudiates the Academy’s implicit approval of Dylan’s political songs.
Dylan does not get to eventually see further parallels or even update his old-fashioned idea of the differences between literature and songs. In contrast to literature, his songs belong to the land of the living, not the dead and the written. They need an audience and need to be experienced:
“Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”
I agree and I disagree with Dylan. Yes, songs are meant to be sung, most plays are meant to be acted on stage, novels are meant to be read … or read out or adapted and sung or put on stage or made into movies. They do not necessarily belong to the land of the dead. You can keep them alive by interacting with them. As literature is as alive as his songs, Bob Dylan is one of the great poets of our times—if he wants that or not. His poetry is out there for you to read or to listen to – either recorded or live.
Read the lecture here.
UPDATE: This might be a worthwhile read, too: Gavin Haynes, “It’s alright ma, I’m only cheating: did Bob Dylan crib his Nobel speech from SparkNotes?” at the Guardian.