Yes, 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.
–Bob Dylan, “Mr. Tambourine Man”
Bob Dylan: winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Finally, in this acrimonious election season, something we can all agree on, that Dylan has been America’s leading poet for decades. This year’s Nobel committee should be congratulated for expanding the definition of literature to include songwriting. As a poet and novelist, I believe songwriting is one of the hardest arts to master, and I bow not only to a man whose work I revere but to all practitioners of his most difficult craft.
His winning the prize has been in the works for years, and if it wasn’t easy for all on the committee to agree that what Dylan writes is great poetry equal to Roethke or Rilke, I understand. I, too, admire and respect those who’ve devoted their lives and careers to the lonely, misunderstood and often maligned vocation of poetry, of writing only words without recourse to what might seem to many the spectacle, seduction or pandering of adding music, especially rock music (though Dylan is master of many genres, including folk, blues, country and pop). I admit now what I hesitated to for many years: that the poets I most dearly love and identify with are those who wrote the soundtrack of my youth: Simon, Springsteen, Lennon and McCartney, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, to name only a few.
But none more than Dylan.
For me, the test was always: Yes, it’s a terrific song, but can the words stand alone? Many—okay, maybe even most—of my favorite songs can’t pass this test, but I’d argue hard that Dylan’s usually can. The Nobel committee is correct that so many phrases from Dylan’s lexicon have come into popular parlance—“Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings” from “What’s A Sweetheart Like You” comes instantly to my mind; you will doubtless think of your own favorites. And that’s why he deserves this honor: his words, as much or more than his songs, are in our bones and blood.
God bless Bob Dylan, great American poet.