Nobel Prize in Literature for Bob Dylan
In Stockholm, the Swedish Academy has entered uncharted territory. For the first time, the Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded not to a writer in the conventional sense, but to the singer and songwriter Bob Dylan. To many, the decision may have come as a surprise, but to those more familiar with the songsmith, his selection was anything but a fluke.
Dylan’s work, and even his own person, has long been the object of scholarly research and university teaching. Among scholars of American literature and culture, he is that rare and exceptional artist who has not only opened up an extensive library of various literary styles, genres and traditions, but who has also shown how this same source material can be utilised for the creation of original work. “Whether he’s reviving the folk ballad genre, adapting the French symbolists or carrying on the tradition of the Beat Generation, the work that Dylan creates is distinctly his own and cannot often be neatly assigned to conventional categories,” says Dr Pascal Fischer, professor of English and American Cultural Studies. “When he recites his verses – sometimes with guitar and sometimes without – the borders between poetry and song lyrics are rendered particularly blurry.” For Fischer, the Academy’s brief statement explaining that the prize is meant to honour an artist who has created new possibilities for poetic expression in the American song tradition is therefore particularly cogent.
A focus on the “other America”
For Dr Christine Gerhardt, professor of American Literature and Culture, Dylan embodies a dimension of American culture and politics that is currently regaining strength. This re-emergence can be seen in the international activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as in the enthusiastic support that many young Americans showed the erstwhile candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders. “The tradition of left-wing American cultural criticism that was known in the sixties as the counter culture has developed in various directions, but it’s still there – critical, alert, inconvenient. And one place it’s currently expressing itself is in a vibrant literary, music and art scene,” says Gerhardt. For her, awarding the prize to Dylan shines a light on this “other” America – something he has stood for since the sixties.
But is this enough? Do the Shakespearian and biblical references in Dylan’s songs, their epic and lyrical scope and their inclusion in literary anthologies and histories of modern American literature really justify the conferral of a Nobel Prize? According to Christine Gerhardt, an attempt to define some specifically literary component in Dylan’s songs misses the point. She is convinced that, as an artist, Dylan eludes such attribution – and is deserving of the prize for precisely this reason. “Through his writing and his performance, he is able to embody an artistic identity that, while never truly defying success, nevertheless manages to resist the establishment.”
Setting a precedent?
Both scholars agree: Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. However, they both see the Swedish Academy’s decision as more than just recognition of the artist’s life’s work and creative strength. Pascal Fischer explains that with their decision, “The committee has acknowledged that texts from the realm of popular culture can also possess literary value.” The fact that almost all of Dylan’s texts are intended for presentation on the stage is also significant. “The Nobel Committee has reminded us,” continues Fischer, “that literature – especially lyric poetry – doesn’t appear merely in the written form.”
Gerhardt considers the Academy’s decision particularly significant as it pertains to cultural heritage, because the popularity of Dylan’s songs has allowed them to create a form of community far beyond that of folk music’s already long tradition in American culture. Thus, the prize represents nothing less than the acknowledgement and recognition of a real societal development. “If poetry, in all of its directness and intricacy, in its symbolic density and oftentimes captivating linguistic beauty – if that can find a place here, that’s basically a small revolution already,” says Gerhardt. “And the Nobel Prize is a great reason to celebrate,” she adds, noting that it has motivated both scholars to continue their own research at the intersection of popular culture, poetic theory and song lyrics.
Song lyrics and poetry in research and teaching
A special issue of the Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik (Journal of English and American Studies), which was co-edited by Fischer and deals with the relationship between poetry and performance, has just been published. Whereas one of the included articles address the theoretical question of the extent to which song lyrics can be characterised as poetry, Fischer’s own contribution is an essay in which he analyses rock songs using the various methods and instruments of literary studies.
Christine Gerhardt is currently organising a conference on the topic Rethinking the Politics of Poetry. The event will focus on poetry dealing with human migration and the environment and will take place in November (not long after the American Election Night event, which also features an international panel discussion). Students also have multiple opportunities to benefit from her research: in addition to her conference-related advanced seminar on feminist, African-American and environmental poetry in the USA from the 1960s to today, students can also focus on their own poetry in the “Poetry, Recklessness and Revision” creative writing seminar taught by the award-winning American poet Laura Passin.