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Listen Magazine on Bob Dylan's Nobel

ListenMagI wasn't going to write a post about Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature, but since Listen Magazine - a magazine about classical music that I love - published an article dripping of condescension toward the people, like me, who don't believe Dylan even remotely deserved the Nobel, I do feel compelled to share my thoughts.

First, let me say that Bob Dylan is one of the greatest artists of our ages, and that whatever it is he is doing, he does not even remotely deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature. Perhaps what Dylan does is indeed poetry. It is certainly closer to literature than some of the books you find at airport newsstands. Let's agree for the sake of the argument that Dylan indeed qualifies as a poet, even if he is a poet of the spoken word rather than the written word. This would not be in itself a disqualifying fact - playwrights like Eugene O'Neill have received the Nobel Prize in the past, and the fact that their scripts weren't easily available for purchase except from specialized bookstores until recently (this has changed now with Amazon.com) didn't raise a concert of shouts about their not deserving the prize. So what makes it ok for O'Neill to receive the Prize and not Dylan? One thing: the depth of insights into the human condition. People who believe Dylan deserved the prize really can't have red much Nobel-winning work.

But let's compare Dylan with that of poets, since that is the one literature category Dylan could lay claim to. Dylan writes fine poems, but they don't compare to the work of poets who have received the Nobel Prize before him, poets who have risked their lives in dictatorships and yet felt compelled to share their art with the world, to bear witness of the times they lived in, poets who have had an incredibly rich output varying poetry forms and syntax and length and topic. Dylan's output is boxed in by its context of song-making. That's not his fault. Within the limitations of songwriting, he definitely has proved the best at writing poem-like songs. But his songs are nothing compared to the poems by T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Octavio Paz and Seamus Heaney and only a very U.S.-centered freelance writer could possibly fail to see that.

While the author of the Listen Magazine article put up a valiant effort to help readers see the beauty of Dylan's poetry, several passages were both inaccurate - to the extent that I had to wonder whether the author was trying to be deliberately dishonest - and extremely condescending toward people who disagree with the Nobel Prize Committee's choice. I'll quote just one, since this post is already longer than I had planned. The umbrage taken by members of the literary community seemed aimed at what was taken as the Nobel's thin definition of their profession, because they felt the purpose of the prize was to bring global attention to literary lights often laboring in somewhat obscurity in their own land - the names of Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano and Tomas Transtromer being little known until Stockholm smiled upon them. 

Sir, Patrick Modiano has been a literary giant in France since 1978 when he won the Prix Goncourt (equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize) for his novel Rue des Boutiques Obscures, and some would argue he had been one of France's best-known novelists since his prize-winning first novel, La Place de l'Etoile, published in 1968, which received the Prix Roger Nimier and the Prix Feneon. The fact that you didn't know who Modiano was before he got the Nobel Prize (or more likely before you had to write this article about Dylan's prize) doesn't mean he wasn't well-known, Sir. And if the Nobel Prize can help bring a greater audience to an investigative journalist like Alexievich, who works under incredibly difficult conditions, I don't think it's a bad outcome, Sir. But you can go ahead and pick up your guitar and hum your Dylan songs while Nobel-Prize-worthy writers try to improve their world. I doubt you'll pick up a book, unless it's Allen Ginsberg's Howl

Now there is one argument in favor of Dylan's winning the Nobel Prize, and while I don't think it's enough to justify giving him the prize, I'll cite it here anyway. Maybe his songs are only second-rate poems, but they have moved audiences like no traditional poem ever has, especially in the turbulent era of the Vietnam War. Dylan's songs-poems, in that way, have had a far greater impact that the work of any of the other Nobel-Prize-winning poets. If a work's quality is measured by the impact it has, then Dylan's songs set the standard every other poem should be evaluated by. And as we face turbulent times anew, maybe his Nobel Prize - deserved or not - can serve as a reminder of the power of music in moving audiences to take a stand. 

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