Just 19 years too late, Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize

Eric Zorn
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News this morning that songwriter Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature comes as no shock to those of us who have been touting him for years. 

Here's my column from September 30, 1997 

NOBEL FOR DYLAN? DON'T THINK TWICE; IT'S ALL RIGHT

Within a few weeks, the Swedish Academy will announce in Stockholm the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature. I don't know who it'll be — last year's selection of Wislawa Szymborska took me by surprise, as I am regrettably behind in my reading of the great contemporary Polish poets — but I know who it ought to be:

Bob Dylan.

His name is formally in nomination this year, you know. And though it's likely that snobbery will forever doom the chances of a folk-rock musician to join the roster of past winners that includes such literary giants as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, the truth is that, for multi-faceted talent with language and sustained international impact, few if any living writers are Dylan's equal.

Never mind the melodies. Forget the mournful, ragged voice. Disregard the sideshow excursions into various religious traditions and the turbulent personal life. Just read the words:

"He not busy being born/Is busy dying.

"Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial ..."

"You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above, / And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love/ And it makes me feel so sorry."

" . . . to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free/ Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow."

For the full effect, though, read the lyrics of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "Isis," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," "My Back Pages," "Boots of Spanish Leather," "Tomorrow is a Long Time," and, well, I could go on.

The guy has written hundreds of songs on dozens of albums--the latest album, "Time Out of Mind," said to be brilliant, goes on sale Tuesday--and many are masterpieces.

"Dylan's writing is rich in symbolism and surprising in its use of language," said Gordon Ball, professor of English and fine arts at VMI who last year submitted the required formal nominating letter from a scholar to the Nobel Foundation. "He came along and validated the imagination in an age of conformity."

Dylan, 56, "has given more memorable phrases to our language than any comparable figure since Kipling" noted a supporting letter by Dan Karlin, a professor at University College in London.

"He is capable of wild flights of surrealistic imagery ('The motor-cycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen'), and also of an absolutely colloquial, street-smart language modulated through strict rhyme ('God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son' / Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on' ')," said the supporting letter of Stephen Scobie, The University of Victoria, Canada.

Scobie praised "the innate artistic qualities of (Dylan's) work: its range, its daring, its depth, its beauty, its excitement," and argued that Dylan "transformed popular music from innocuous but vapid entertainment into a medium which could be taken seriously both artistically and politically."

Dylan's words now appear in college poetry anthologies and books devoted both to his lyrics and analysis of same. The Pope paraphrased him the other day.

"I think him a genius," said Boston University English professor Christopher Rickes, who has given lectures and written scholarly articles on Dylan. "He is quite good enough at mediating human experience through words to qualify as a major literary figure."

And while song lyrics are not generally considered serious literature today, Rickes noted that the same was once true of plays and even novels, and the link between music and great poetry goes back at least as far as ancient Greece.

There may be writers who conjure the ache of lost love with more precision, who use metaphor more skillfully to express political outrage, who tell allegorical tales with more interesting imagery, who are better at expressing joy and who exhibit more insight about regret. But no one does it all better than Bob Dylan.

For those in the Swedish Academy still wondering upon whom they should bestow the most coveted prize in letters, the answer is not blowing in the wind. It's right here.

Twitter @EricZorn

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