Bob Dylan is not overly endowed with humility: “I was heading for the fantastic lights. No doubt about it,” he writes, describing his early days in New York City in his memoir Chronicles, Volume One. “But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else.”
Fair enough. If anyone in his profession was entitled to think those thoughts at the time, it was Dylan. And if you can’t be candid in a memoir, when can you? Dylan’s contribution to rock’s songbook is unsurpassed. But Dylan’s curious reaction to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last October is to me an indication that he was uncomfortable with the honor, which he declined even to acknowledge publicly for two weeks. Dylan is usually happy to accept awards, but you could tell he wasn’t sure he deserved this one because what he has written (apart from that singular, mystical, magnificent memoir) isn’t literature. This week, leaving the Nobel committee breathless until just five days ahead of the June 10 deadline to submit the work, Dylan finally released (via text and spoken-word recording) the Nobel lecture without which the award cannot officially be bestowed. The lecture reveals an artist struggling with the burden of being placed at the apex of a category that isn’t really applicable to his work. Dylan understands that to say his rock lyrics aren’t literature is, given that he’s not shy about acknowledging his importance in his field, to say that nobody else’s are either.
So Dylan feels an obligation to defend his profession, but his heart isn’t really in it. The craftsmanship of his best work must be weighed against the “surpassing idiocy” of his worst, which is “inept, schlocky,” as Andrew Ferguson has so cruelly (and wittily) pointed out. Even a truly sublime, indeed monumental, work such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is just a succession of surreal and grotesque images thrown into a glorious jumble. “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / They’re painting the passports brown” derives its fearsome power from its incantation, from its sound, from the effect it carries of being the urgent admonition of a mad prophet stricken with incomprehensible visions. It isn’t even close to devastating on the page. If all recordings of Dylan’s songs were to disappear tomorrow, he would not endure as a poet.
Dylan cites the oral tradition of Homer when he distinguishes between writing that delights the ear and the eye, and defends his style of writing by equating it with John Donne’s lines, “The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.” Dylan adds, “I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.” The difference is that Donne actually does know what he’s writing about, whereas even superior rock lyrics, frequently thrown together on the fly, needn’t be infused with any meaning whatsoever. The pop-music maven who ventures a close reading of a song is usually disappointed by how little thought went into it. Dylan frequently says even he doesn’t know what his songs mean.
Dylan spends much of the speech exploring three works of literature that underlay his development as a writer: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. He was just a boy when he read each of them, yet each of them would forever echo in his consciousness, and he speaks of their meaning and potency with a lightly-worn eloquence. Some of their tropes would recur frequently in his work — the wanderings of Odysseus, the disbelief and shock of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel, the Biblical fervor of Melville’s Ahab. Odysseus’s longing for home, Dylan writes, reverberates in unlikely places — ditties such as “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “Home on the Range.” To cite these simple songs (by Curly Putman Jr. and Brewster Higley, respectively) in a Nobel speech is generous: If they’re literature, then maybe so is “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly — whom Dylan also cites.
Dylan is aware of how quickly and haphazardly he wrote many of his songs, and that they often barely make sense from one line to the next, let alone constitute a sustained work of disciplined thought. They don’t belong on the shelf next to Homer, Melville, and Remarque. “Masters of War” is not the equal of any single chapter in All’s Quiet, but it’s informed by it, indeed haunted by it. Dylan says that after reading Remarque, he never wanted to read another war novel, and never did. The defense he is mounting is that his work is at least grounded in, aware of, adjacent to the literary tradition. He is respectful of his betters, but he understands that literature exists on a higher plane than rock lyrics, and his mood is one of respect and gratitude toward the artists who taught him. He bows to the literary world as T. S. Eliot, in The Wasteland, acknowledged his debt to Ezra Pound by calling him il miglior fabbro — the better craftsman.