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An ode to speechless Bob Dylan



What is the purpose of awarding a philanthropic literature prize to a millionaire rock star? If you wish to draw attention to an unsung national poet, why choose one of the world's most famous Americans? If it has to be an American, why not one who writes books?

Bob Dylan cartoon by Chris JohnstonArgument about Bob Dylan has peaked for the first time in 40 years or so, leaving a lot of people wondering if they're still 'forever young', and which side of the argument is right.

Dylan's relationship to literature is well known. He took his name from a Welsh poet. When he sang 'Desolation Row' Dylan was locking into the Beat world of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

He quotes from a range of writers without fear of accusations of plagiarism. Scripture is close to hand, but also the cornucopia that is the songbook of American popular music. He copies Woody Guthrie and parodies Elvis Presley. His debt to the blues and gospel is apparent, but also to Cole Porter.

The compliment is returned. The literary world has relished and lauded the work of Bob Dylan from the start, admiring his lyrical fertility and vocal ingenuity. On a good day, his gift for register and timing is still astounding.

The poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion nominated 'Visions of Johanna' his favourite Dylan song, but then everyone has a favourite Dylan song. The poetry is, in that sense, common property, hence the popularity of the Nobel Prize decision in many quarters.

The Dylan bibliography is short. I read Tarantula when I was a teenager and could see even then it was less a product of substance than of substances. A whole literature thrives on his impact upon popular music, with thorough analysis of the songs for religious, social and biographical meanings, a critical reception rivalled only by those other game changers of the 60s, the Fab Four.

Arguments in recent weeks, that Dylan isn't a writer, are contradicted by the evidence. He's been writing since primary school in Minnesota. Yet dissatisfaction persists. Is he a writer in the way Patrick White or Boris Pasternak are writers? Is literature about the personal relationship between writer and reader?


"The poetic act comes out of a state of speechlessness, out of asking how to say things that seem unsayable. Poetry has always been the verbalisation of things we thought could not be put into words."


Books of lyrics are for the fans. Reading 'Like a Rolling Stone' in a cheap paperback is never the same as hearing that imperious, incomparable song in the original. We even follow the words to relive Dylan's threatening intonation and deadpan dispatch. How many of his lyrics do we read for possible shades of meaning, as we would with a good poem? We leave Dylan to offer the shades, each time he does a new version. He is famous, even infamous, for attempting new interpretations of his songs through arrangement and emphasis. But is that literature?

Most likely you go your way and I'll go mine. The Nobel Committee has proven more flexible with its definition of 'writer' than its critics. Indeed, a comical aspect of this year's Prize debate is the view it's a slap in the face for the literary establishment, when it's hard to find a more distinctive landmark of that establishment than the Nobel Committee.

Initial silence from Bob Dylan after the announcement led one of the Scandinavian officials to issue a complaint that Dylan was being 'impolite and arrogant'. This declaration prompted even more vitriolic opinion online on all sides, from fans, litterateurs, Dylanologists, and other armchair grenadiers. Just as things were getting completely tangled up in blue Dylan himself broke the silence to explain that news of the award had left him speechless. So maybe he wasn't that arrogant after all.

Speechless is probably the one thing a Nobel recipient must not be. About the only requirements of a recipient are that they show up, make a speech, and bank the cheque. Whether Dylan will follow the pattern of his predecessors by acknowledging his debt to American writers and talking about the value of his art, remains to be seen.

Speechless though is a normal state for a poet. We shouldn't be surprised. The poetic act comes out of a state of speechlessness, out of asking how to say things that seem unsayable. Poetry has always been the verbalisation of things we thought could not be put into words. Whatever we say about getting the gong, few people argue that Bob Dylan has succeeded over again in singing of things that leave us speechless.

This is when it gets down to personal favourites for any of us. Here are two of mine.

'Just like Tom Thumb's Blues' opens 'When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter time, too / And your gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through', then tells a story of dangerous women, serious drinking, and general despair before deciding that 'the joke was on me, there was nobody even there to bluff. / I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough.' This song could be earnest, dire, self-mocking, comical, or a spoof depending entirely on how it's sung. It reminds me of Horace Walpole: 'The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.' The poetry of the song relies as much on what is not said, what is withheld, that listeners will provide themselves.

Or there is the speechlessness of love, as in 'Buckets of Rain'. Dylan speaks in childish wonder of 'buckets of moonbeams in my hand', that he's both 'been meek and hard like an oak', lyrical abbreviations of the changing extremes of a relationship. Then, just when he confesses 'I like the cool way you look at me', follows with 'Everything about you is bringing me misery'. It's the surprise disclosure of 'misery' that we suddenly see is the centre of the song's meaning, even as he continues in light-hearted mode. It's this kind of twist, this still point in the drama, that makes Dylan not just a good songwriter but a great one.


Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize



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Existing comments

A great reflection, thank you Philip. Like you, I was surprised at the conservative response to the award, especially from people whom I had considered quite progressive. Shifting the paradigm is always a tough job, and I still love Patrick White!

Richard Wilson | 07 November 2016  

When I first heard that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize I was really delighted. My favourite Dylan song has to be "It Ain't Me Babe" which is a song only to be sung by himself, in his own distinctive voice. For me, it sums him up.

Pam | 07 November 2016  

Many of us ordinary non conservatives 'of a certain age' just thought: but why not Leonard Cohen?

margaret | 07 November 2016  

Welcome back, Philip. It's been a long wait since your last piece, but, as always, worth the wait An amazingly knowledgeable and beautifully written piece. Thanks.

Joe Castley | 07 November 2016  

I think Tom Waits nails it: “It’s a great day for Literature and for Bob when a Master of its original form is celebrated. Before epic tales and poems were ever written down, they migrated on the winds of the human voice and no voice is greater than Dylan’s.”

Tony | 07 November 2016  

Is it a sign of the times (or simply my age - Gen X) that I often have to think twice about whether a pop icon has passed away or not? When I heard Bob Dylan's name on the news - I thought he'd already passed away, and immediately thought Johnny Cash deserved a Nobel Prize, then realised canonisation would be more appropriate.

AURELIUS | 07 November 2016  

Great poet. Great award. When Joseph Murray received his Nobel Prize for doing the first organ transplants in the world he said two wonderful things, viz: "We have all been warmed by fires we did not build. We have all drunk from wells we did not dig." and: "Service to others is the rent we pay for living on this planet". Dylan has paid his rent in full.

john frawley | 07 November 2016  

Margaret touches on an inevitable view expressed by many, that the Prize this year is about singer-songwriters. Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and other music stars are in debt, in one way or another, to Dylan’s initiatives (poetic and musical), and I think the prize is covertly indicating his centrality in modern American music. But it’s not really about rock music. The Prize has always been political and, in my view, it’s not coincidence that Dylan was given his Nobel in the year of Trump. Dylan represents the complexity of social and moral values, in his songs, that stands in direct contrast to the ugly uniformity and amoral nihilism of Trump.

Philip Harvey | 08 November 2016  

'The poetic act comes out of a state of speechlessness, out of asking how to say things that seem unsayable. Poetry has always been the verbalisation of things we thought could not be put into words.' This observation is so, so true. We do owe so much to Dylan and the other bards of his generation for expressing their/ our Zeitgeist so memorably, for articulating ideas and feelings we could instant relate to, without having the means to express them so eloquently. I think this acknowledgement of the cultural phenomenon he was such an integral part of is both timely and fitting.

Jena Woodhouse | 08 November 2016  

My first memory of Dylan was during spiritual direction as a young seminarian in Canberra. The song "The Times They are a Changing" interrupted spiritual direction a floor above. My seminary Rector commissioned me to remove that subversive record from recreation room. I obeyed. Frankly I found the music depressing![though words were far from worrisome in that early halcyon 'post-gone-sillier' era of mid 1960's]. The churchquake came later

Father John George | 11 November 2016  

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