October 13, 2016
“I’m the first person who’ll put it to you,” Bob Dylan said in a 1978 interview, “and the last person who’ll explain it to you.”
The Swedish Academy, which awarded Mr. Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, has put it to us, and it has no explaining to do to most readers and listeners, however much they might have been pulling for Philip Roth or Don DeLillo or Margaret Atwood.
This Nobel acknowledges what we’ve long sensed to be true: that Mr. Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.
It has never hurt that Mr. Dylan’s words were delivered, as the English poet Philip Larkin once put it, in a “cawing, derisive voice” that seemed to carry the weight of myth and prophecy. Mr. Larkin was not Mr. Dylan’s greatest fan. He found the lyrics to “Desolation Row” to be “possibly half-baked.”
It took a different Englishman, the venerated critic and scholar Christopher Ricks, to make the case most fully for Mr. Dylan as a complicated and complicating poet. In Mr. Ricks’s sly 2004 book “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” he persuasively compared Mr. Dylan at various points with personages as distinct as Yeats, Hardy, Keats, Marvell, Tennyson and Marlon Brando.
“Dylan’s in an art in which sins are laid bare (and resisted), virtues are valued (and manifested), and the graces brought home,” Mr. Ricks wrote. He added, “Human dealings of every kind are his for the artistic seizing.”
Mr. Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., in 1941, was inspired when young by potent American vernacular music, songs by performers like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. When his voice became fully his own, in his work of the mid-to-late 1960s that led up to what is probably his greatest song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” no one had ever heard pop songs with so many oracular, tumbling words in them.
When Bruce Springsteen inducted Mr. Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, he described the opening seconds of that song this way: “That snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” The words that followed pulled that door from its hinge. In the chorus, they posed a question that has not stopped ringing over American life: “How does it feel/To be on your own/with no direction home.”
At the time, Dylan wrote in his masterful memoir “Chronicles: Volume One”(2004), “I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick.” That memoir demonstrated that Mr. Dylan could write prose as fluently as lyrics. This needed proving only because Mr. Dylan’s sole novel, “Tarantula” (1966), written when he was 25, is a largely unreadable wordstew, written so as to defeat the hardiest of his idolators.
As Elvis Costello said in his own recent memoir, “If you want a long career, you have to drive people away now and again, so they realize they miss you.”
Everyone has his or her own private anthology of favorite Dylan lyrics. Mine come from songs including “Idiot Wind” (“blowing every time you move your teeth”), “Brownsville Girl” (“Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content”), “Hurricane” (“How can the life of such a man/be in the palm of some fool’s hand?”), “Sweetheart Like You” (“It’s done with a flick of the wrist”) and “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,” written with the Band (“Pack up the meat, sweet, we’re headin’ out”).
Then there’s this, from “Blind Willie McTell”:
Well, God is in His heaven,
And we all want what’s his.
But power and greed and corruptible seed,
Seem to be all that there is.
Before this Nobel Prize, Mr. Dylan has been recognized by the world of literature and poetry. In 2008, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded him a special citation “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
His songs have always packed social and political power to match the imagery. In his book “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood,” Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke of what Mr. Dylan’s songs meant to his father as well as to a generation:
“Dylan’s voice was awful, an aged quaver that sounded nothing like the deep-throated or silky R&B that Dad took as gospel. But the lyrics wore him down, until he played Dylan in that addicted manner of college kids who cordon off portions to decipher the prophecies of their favorite band. Dad heard poetry, but more than that an angle that confirmed what a latent part of him had already suspected.” What was confirmed was this: The Vietnam War was a moral disgrace.
Songs are not poems, exactly. Songs prick our senses in different manner. Many of Mr. Dylan’s lyrics can no doubt, as Mr. Larkin put, look half-baked when set starkly alone on a white page.
But Mr. Dylan’s work — “with its iambics, its clackety-clack rhymes, and its scattergun images,” as the critic Robert Christgau wrote — has its own kind of emblematic verbal genius. His diction, focus and tone are those of a caustically gifted word man; his metrical dexterity is everywhere apparent. He is capable of rhetorical organization; more often he scatters his rhetoric like seed, or like curses.
This award is also a sign —after last year’s laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, whose work is made up of interviews — that the Swedish Academy is increasingly open to nontraditional forms of writing.
In what feels like a blow for common sense and scalding wordplay, the academy has attended to Mr. Dylan’s lyrics in “Lay Lady Lay,” to wit: “Why wait any longer for the one you love/When he’s standing in front of you?”
In a 2004 interview in The New York Times, Mr. Ricks summed up my sense of the best of Mr. Dylan’s oeuvre: “I just think we’re terrifically lucky to be alive at a time when he is.”