Bob Dylan writes but not for the page. On their own, standing apart from his artful and often soulful delivery of them, the words to his songs fall as flat as the screen on which you can read them.
True, they can please by stirring your memory of the songs as you’ve heard him perform them. Songs typically have three components: voice, instrumental accompaniment, and lyrics. In Dylan’s case, if you mentally supply the first two as you read the third, you can make the lyrics take flight. Unaided, however, what they do when they are forced into the form of the printed word is sparkle sporadically and sputter. Ultimately, they disappoint, failing to achieve takeoff, in my experience, anyway. Dylan’s poetry is in the whole ecosystem of the song, of which no component by itself is self-sufficient.
He has composed and performed some of the most compelling popular music of his time and has done so from a modest treasury of talents. I mean that as praise. He’s resourceful. God blessed him, though not, obviously, with the voice of Caruso, and not with the fine-motor skills of B. B. King. And — to the point — his use of language is hardly a match for the sustained dazzle and discipline of Homer, to whom Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy compared Dylan when announcing that he had been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.
She’s right, of course, that much of the classical poetry we admire was composed for the ear and intended to be sung, or chanted, often to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, often specifically a lyre (hence “lyrics,” and “lyric poetry”). The legend that Homer was blind may be a symbolic statement on the primacy of the aural and oral dimension of his epic poems. Their fixed meter and formulaic expressions would have made it easier for an unlettered poet to commit them to, and recite them from, memory, as Milman Parry argued after studying the work of contemporary, 20th-century bards in the Balkans. Recall Auden’s definition of poetry: “memorable speech.”
Stephen Daitz, a classicist, tried to determine and then reproduce the sound of ancient Greek and Latin poetry. He had a passion for it. In his renditions, it was weird, at least to my American ears. I once heard him chant the beginning of the Aeneid, which was written for literate Roman society in the Augustan age, though in such a way, of course, that it would sound beautiful if read aloud. When he was performing Vergil and Homer, Daitz, whose real-life speaking voice was crisp, gave the impression that he was about to break into tears.
In any case, his effort was highly speculative. We’ll never know for sure the exact musical quality that an ancient poet assumed his words would produce. We do know what they sound like now as our eyes take in the letters and we mentally vocalize the lines. If they were composed with sufficient art, the effort required to give them voice in our minds is so slight that we can maintain the fiction that they’re giving voice to themselves.
Homer survived on papyrus, parchment, and paper because his work lent itself to literature, too — literature as in “letters,” or litterae, as the Romans called it. Literature succeeds when sound and sense are woven together seamlessly. When the latter depends on a special intonation or flurry of auditory effects that a singer or musician must work up in order to compensate for some limitation in the language, you still might have a great song, a thing of beauty on MP3 and the concert stage; on the page, not so much.
Don’t get me wrong: The magnitude of the honor conveyed by the words “Nobel laureate” is not too great for Dylan’s accomplishments. It’s just that those accomplishments aren’t literary. I don’t do karaoke, but if I did, he’d be at the top of my playlist, and for some of it I wouldn’t even need to look at the lyrics, I’ve listened to the songs that often. They’re etched in my brain but etched whole. The music, the words, and the color that Dylan’s voice gives them are linked almost inextricably. Remove the words from their natural habitat and, alas, they lose much of their vigor.
And I agree with Anna North.