Robert Allen Zimmerman, born May 24, 1941, burst onto the burgeoning counter-culture music scene of New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961. Hailed as a voice of his generation and as having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the Nobel committee, Bob Dylan is cemented not only as a rock-and-roll legend but also a cultural touchstone. But is his work a touchstone of the literary canon?
The Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to him in a controversial move, was announced by Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, on Thursday, October 13. More than having merely “created new poetic expressions,” the controversy arising from Dylan’s award seems to stem from a greater subversion of forms: those that dictate “high” and “low” art.
What won Dylan his Nobel Prize? His deep, probing song lyrics? His warmly received book of prose poetry? His autobiography? Or perhaps his notably ambiguous–even comical–interview responses from the 60s, in which he confounds audiences of dutifully sycophantic and reverential followers of Dylan, who is to the hippies and beats of leftist America a god-figure? We cannot know for sure.
Dylan, a musician and perhaps an occupational poet, has amassed an oeuvre transcending a mere collection of poems. And of the 60s songwriting pioneers, only The Doors frontman Jim Morrison called himself a poet. In an early interview, Dylan, on the other hand, when asked, “whether he considered himself primarily a musician or a poet,” replied: “I think of myself more of a song-and-dance man.”
Bob Dylan has always been terse and enigmatic. If there is poetry to found and examined in his song lyrics, it is for us to find–and the Nobel committee has made its stance clear on the issue. Our culture’s ideas of high and low art, of art and entertainment, of profundity and of noise are evolving, seeking out new forms of expression and including more voices. To quote a famous poet, “the times, they are a-changin.”