Bob Dylan, Yes: Dylan Thomas, No.
I don’t get it. Bob Dylan getting the Nobel prize for literature? Some commenters have no problem with that. I’m mildly flummoxed. If he were awarded the prize for economics, for example, how would that go over? Would people say, “Yes, that makes perfect sense—he often writes about the rural working-class poor.” Or would they say, “No, that’s just stupid—he’s not trying to be an economist.” To put it another way, how would people react if Robert Pinsky were awarded a grammy for his poetry?
It seems that the Nobel committee is purposefully sticking a finger in the eye of every living American writer. There are many who have worked arduously, perhaps in obscurity, in the service of literature. To give the award to someone with no aspirations toward creating enduring works of literature is nothing short of preposterous. And insulting.
Literature springs from a dialog among writers. Thomas fostered such a dialog, influencing his contemporaries and those who would come after. Many embraced his style; others (eg, the Movement) openly rejected it. In either case, his work directly affected the style, tone, and tenor of generations of writers, and shaped what we think of as literature. I doubt many writers would credit Dylan as a core influence on their work.
I am occasionally asked by folks who don’t read poetry if I can name any musicians who might qualify as poets. I begin by explaining that music and poetry strive for different ends, and have different tools and methods for achieving those ends. I generally find that setting poetry to music destroys it—in the same way that reading a song on the printed page destroys it, too. Music and literature are animated by different geniuses—and while they may share a common ancestor, they occupy different and distinct branches on the phylogenetic tree of human expression. Still, in terms of poetic musicians, I might start with Bruce Springsteen (and not just because of my Jersey roots). Many of his lyrics stand alone in their grittiness and angst, and their occasional delight in wordplay (cf, “Blinded by the Light”). Even better, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has written many lines that I wish I had written myself; that’s high praise from a poet. I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about Dylan.
Oddly, Dylan has so far maintained an intriguing silence with regard to the award. Perhaps he is simply too bemused to comment? Perhaps he, too, finds it bizarre, and is waiting for the prize committee to say, “Just kidding!” In any case, I am hoping that he’ll decline the prize. It probably means nothing to him, anyway, and it would send a message to the committee. Intentional mixing of genres can result in wondrous works of art; but mixing up your genres just makes you look ignorant, arrogant, and dismissive.