So you may have heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.
At first, no one could get ahold of him. Then, when they did, he rejected it. The initial news, though, set the literary community ablaze. He’s a singer. A songwriter. Are lyricists worthy of literary awards?
Some said no. In The New York Times article “Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten a Nobel,” Anna North wrote:
Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.
“Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate? It’s not so strange, really” was the headline from the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times, which went on to say:
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awarded Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, compared him to Homer and Sappho, and it’s a fact that great literature has its roots in lyrics that were set to music and transmitted from town to town and from generation to generation by a succession of minstrels, troubadours, cantors and choirs. And then records, radio and streaming services.
For me, it wasn’t all that shocking for Bob Dylan of all songwriters to have won a literary prize. Growing up, I knew very little of Bob Dylan. I knew that he was from Minnesota, like Prince, and like my mother. I knew he was a folk singer with a unique voice who’d famously brewed a storm when he went electric. And, I knew him as someone featured in the very first Beat book I ever bought — Ann Charter’s The Portable Beat Reader.
The Portable Beat Reader had included four pieces of Dylan’s in its pages:
- “Blowin’ in the Wind”
- “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
- “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
- Tarantula (excerpt)
Ray Bremser, Jack Micheline, Peter Orlovsky, and Anne Waldman only got one a-piece. If Ann Charters and the editors at Penguin were any indication, Bob Dylan was as much a poet as other recognized poets.
The poets and writers of the Beat Generation encouraged Bob Dylan tremendously. The documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder touches on this poignantly. Much has already been written extensively about Dylan’s literary influences, so here are just five quotes connecting Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac:
- “’I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,’” said Bob Dylan via BobDylan.com
- “But it captures what Dylan cherishes in Jack Kerouac, who understood freedom in much the same way….” — Cass R. Sunstein wrote about Dylan’s “Desolation Row” in “Dylan soars past Whitman as the great American poet” in the Chicago Tribune
- “’Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959,’ Dylan told him. ‘It blew my mind.’ It was the first poetry he’d read that spoke his own American language, Dylan said—or so Ginsberg said he said.” — Sean Wilentz wrote in “Bob Dylan, the Beat Generation, and Allen Ginsberg’s America” in The New Yorker
- “Dave Van Ronk, in discussing both Dylan’s literary filiations and his well-known intolerance of the sixties rock revolution, noted that ‘Bobby is very much a product of the beat generation.… You are not going to see any more like him.’ Dylan likened his songs of this period to the cut-ups of William Burroughs, and there are notable similarities between these songs and the writings of Jack Kerouac, especially the Neal Cassady-inspired Visions of Cody and On the Road—not only in their phrasings but also in Dylan’s whole persona, which seemed almost to be modeled on Dean Moriarty, the ‘holy goof,’ the ‘burning shuddering frightful angel.’” — wrote Mark Polizzotti in “On Bob Dylan’s Literary Influences” via LitHub
- “In the East, some wended their way up to Lowell, becoming pilgrims at his grave, often leaving notes, mementos, or an empty wine bottle or half-pint of whiskey in salute. Then, in 1975, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, in Lowell on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour, made a trip to Kerouac’s grave, famously recorded in the film Renaldo and Clara. While Ginsberg rambles on about the famous graves he’s visited, Dylan is noticeably quiet as he ponders Kerouac’s brief dates and the ‘He honored life’ coda etched in the granite. ‘Is this what’s going to happen to you?’ asked Ginsberg, indicating Jack’s slab. ‘No,’ said Dylan, then just thirty-four. ‘I wanna be in an unmarked grave.’” — from John Suiter’s “Kerouac’s Lowell: A Life on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers“
You can watch the video of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg at Kerouac’s grave here.
For the connection between Homer and Jack Kerouac, go here.