Bob Dylan's poetry and the Nobel Prize

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A. E. STALLINGS says: "At the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, poets, at least judging from my Facebook feed, were either very much pro- or very much con- (often along generational lines), delighted or outraged…"

I found I fell into neither camp. At first, I was pleased to hear the news, and judged the Nobel committee's view of Dylan to be exactly right: although his early recordings suggest he could hardly win prizes as a singer, guitarist, or harmonica player (don't confuse being strikingly different and new with being highly skilled), he did deserve to be considered seriously as a significant 20th-century poet. So I started with no negative feelings at all about the decision.

And then I looked at some of his lyrics in written form to see if I could find good evidence to cite for this, and found that even my favorite songs looked truly feeble on the page. I responded to some of them when they were originally sung; but looking at them now, I couldn't find anything of high poetic quality at all. And mentally putting them back in their musical context didn't help.

This isn't a strong reaction, and it isn't determined by the generation I belong to: I'm neither too old to have felt the political outrage of the 1960s nor too young to have memories of it. But I would say that, restricting ourselves to the living in accord with Nobel rules, Paul McCartney has written better poetry. Leonard Cohen has written better poetry. Ralph McTell has written better poetry. Don Henley (in collaboration with the late Glenn Frey, who is now far beyond the pain) has written better poetry.

And in particular, Paul Simon has written much better poetry.

So I found (somewhat to my disappointment, because I actually wanted to be pleased by the decision) that I didn't mind at all having the Nobel literature committee remind us that some 20th-century songwriters deserve to be remembered as very fine poets, but, perhaps laying too much emphasis on Dylan's influence on later musicians and political impact on the 1960s and too little on literary skill, they had chosen the wrong one.

Comments on this topic are open below Mark Liberman's post on this topic, so feel free to continue the discussion there.

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