Nobel Committee: ‘The Times, They Are A Changin’

“We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards.” – Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.

In an announcement that shook the foundations literary world, the Swedish Academy awarded US music legend Bob Dylan won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, the first songwriter to win the prestigious award.

Ever the change-maker, Dylan, 75, was honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy said in announcing the award.

The choice was met by gasps and a long round of applause from journalists attending the prize announcement. The folk singer has been mentioned in Nobel speculation in past years, but was never seen as a serious contender.

It did not take long for commentators on the internet and mainstream publications to bring up the question of whether the prize was deserved, and the Swedish Academy, while stating that the decision had not been difficult, also hoped they would not be criticized – an indication that the Academy was well aware that the decision might generate controversy.

Danius was emphatic in her praise for Dylay, stating his songs were “poetry for the ears”.

She added: ““We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

Among both the public and the intelligentsia, reaction was divided. Commenting to the Guardian, Salman Rushdie said he was delighted with Dylan’s win and said his lyrics had been “an inspiration to me all my life ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school”.

“The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognises that,” Rushdie said.”
Prof Seamus Perry, chair of the English faculty at Oxford University, compared Dylan’s talent to that of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, calling the songwriter “representative and yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats”.
On the other hand, author and academic, Reza Aslan tweeted, “I’m sorry but this is total bullshit (spare me the hate emails)”

Another less angry but no less contrary reaction comes from novelist, Rabih Alameddine – whom the Newyorker called a ‘cult celebrity’ for his artistic twitter feeds. He wrote that, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars…This is almost as silly as Winston Churchill.”

And best-selling novelist, Jodi Picooult asked rhetorically, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?”

But perhaps, the Newyorker’s David Remnick captured the decision best in his tweet: ” For all the foibles of the prize and its selection committee, can we just bask for a little while in this one? The wheel turns and sometimes it stops right on the nose.”

In awarding the prize to Dylan, the Swedish Academy appears to be continuing a trajectory of breaking new ground. Last year, the prize went to Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich for her documentary-style narratives based on witness testimonies.

Dylan will take home the 8 million krone ($971,000) prize.

Still writing at 75, Dylan is no stranger to non-musical accolades, having won a Quill Award for Memoir/Biography, a special Pulitzer Prize for lifetime achievement, and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. He has also been inducted into the American Academy of Letters. Placed in that context, the Nobel Prize can, in fact, be seen to be a little late in coming.

Dylan has often sprinkled literary allusions into his music and cited the influence of poetry on his lyrics, and has referenced Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Ezra Pound. He has also published poetry and prose, including his 1971 collection, “Tarantula,” and “Chronicles: Volume One,” a memoir published in 2004. His collected lyrics from 1961-2012 are due out on Nov. 1 from Simon & Schuster.
Literary scholars have long debated whether Mr. Dylan’s lyrics can stand on their own as poetry, and an astonishing volume of academic work has been devoted to parsing his music. The Oxford Book of American Poetry included his song “Desolation Row,” in its 2006 edition, and Cambridge University Press released “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” in 2009, further cementing his reputation as a brilliant literary stylist.

Billy Collins, the former United States poet laureate, argued that Mr. Dylan deserved to be recognized not merely as a songwriter, but as a poet.

“Most song lyrics don’t really hold up without the music, and they aren’t supposed to,” Mr. Collins said in an interview. “Bob Dylan is in the 2 percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice. I think he does qualify as poetry.”

The Nobel is the latest accolade for the singer, who has come a long way from his humble beginnings as Robert Allen Zimmerman, born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, and who taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar and piano.

Captivated by the music of folk singer Woody Guthrie, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan – reportedly after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas – and began performing in local nightclubs.

After dropping out of college, he moved to New York in 1960. His first album contained only two original songs, but the 1963 breakthrough The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan featured a slew of his own songs, including the classic Blowin’ in the Wind.

Of Dylan, Bill Sisaro of the New York Times writes, “from the start, Mr. Dylan stood out for dazzling lyrics and an oblique songwriting style that made him a source of fascination for artists and critics.”

In 1963, the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart with a version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose ambiguous refrains evoked Ecclesiastes.

Within a few years, Dylan was challenging the traditions of folk music, with ever more complex songs and moves toward a more rock ’n’ roll sound.

In 1965, he plugged in an electric guitar Newport Folk Festival, provoking a backlash from fans who accused him of selling out.
Dylan’s tours in 1965 and 1966 attracted a lot of attention. For a period he was accompanied by film maker D. A. Pennebaker, who documented life around the stage in what would come to be the movie Dont Look Back (1967).

Dylan has recorded a large number of albums revolving around topics such as: the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love. The lyrics have continuously been published in new editions, under the title Lyrics. As an artist, he is strikingly versatile; he has been active as painter, actor and scriptwriter.

Besides his large production of albums, Dylan has published experimental work like Tarantula (1971) and the collection Writings and Drawings (1973). He has written an autobiography, Chronicles (2004), which depicts memories from the early years in New York and which provides glimpses of his life at the center of popular culture. Since the late 1980s, Bob Dylan has toured persistently, an undertaking called the “Never-Ending Tour”. Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.

After reports of a motorcycle accident in 1966 near his home in Woodstock, N.Y., Dylan withdrew further from public life but remained a prolific lyricist.

Dylan rarely gives interviews, though he still performs in public. Instead of appearing at a starchy news conference convened for promotional purposes by a publisher, the Swedish Academy’s newest Laurate in Literature was in Las Vegas on Thursday for a performance at a theater there. In taking the stage, he did not comment on the honor. Perhaps it is more fitting that he let the lyrics speak for themselves. For the times, they are a changing…

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