Excellent news! But it’s not before time. Dylan’s work from the sixties alone might well have warranted a Nobel Prize. Having said that, it’s good that the citation didn’t restrict the award to any one period. Implicitly it was acknowledging the achievement of his later work much of which matches the quality of the sixties songs.
It’s surprising then to find so much emphasis on the earlier work in discussion of Dylan’s suitability for the award. One famous radio commentator, while commending Dylan, even refused to accept that he had written anything worthwhile since Blood On The Tracks. Doubtless the positive side of this otherwise appalling short-sightedness is that it’s testimony to Dylan’s ability to appeal in different ways to a range of audiences. I’d be surprised, though, in time to come if Time Out Of Mind, ‘Love And Theft’, Modern Times, and Tempest – to name a few – are not considered at least as good as Blood On The Tracks, fine though that album is.
Also quite amazing is the propensity for some people to deny that Dylan is a suitable recipient for the award purely on the ground that he doesn’t write poetry but songs – and songs aren’t literature. The logic is so bad it sounds to me as if they’re desperately digging about for reasons to object. It’s true of course that Dylan is, essentially, a song writer rather than a writer of poems. And it’s true that songs involve music. But so what? How does that disqualify them from being literature?
There are at least two considerations by which songs can be judged in order to establish their eligibility or otherwise for a literature award. The first is whether the songs deserve the award as songs, and the second is whether the lyrics considered separately deserve it. While it might be true that songs which would merit an award when judged as songs (taking the music and the lyrics together) might not merit one as literature, this would presumably be because the lyrics, considered on their own, didn’t reach the appropriate standard. But that’s no reason for refusing a literature award if the lyrics are of the appropriate quality. Dylan’s Nobel is justified because the lyrics considered independently of the music justify it.
But some people still demur. They argue that the award can’t be justified because lyrics are not poetry. Again the logic seems bizarre. First of all, the Nobel is a literature prize, not a poetry prize. It’s not limited to poetry as is shown by recipients having included novelists and playwrights. There’s no reason in principle, therefore, why it should not be awarded for song lyrics. Secondly, it’s extremely doubtful that lyrics don’t deserve to be considered as poems. Andrew Motion was not considered out of order for including I and I in a poetry anthology he edited. And Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, although they can be performed as songs, tend to be studied as poems, while conversely Jerusalem, written as a poem, is best known as a song.
To my knowledge no one has come up with any hard and fast distinction between poetry and song, at least as far as poetic qualities are concerned. I’d guess that at least ninety percent – and perhaps all – of the qualities which mark out poetry as being worthwhile can be found in Dylan’s songs. For that reason anyone who doesn’t appreciate the songs as poems is likely to be missing out on a swathe of poetic subtlety. Even a song one knows by heart can acquire a wealth of extra richness when pored over as words on a page, as one would with a poem.
If anything’s surprising about Dylan being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, it’s that it took so long. Nevertheless I doubt whether that was because of the judges having qualms about the eligibility of songs. I suspect it was a fear of being accused of dumbing down. Sixties superstars are just not the sort of people one expects to be capable of writing literary works as good as, or better than, the very best in the field. The extraordinary thing is that that is only a part of Dylan’s achievement.