A Songwriter Wins the Nobel, Poetry Must Come Back Into the Streets

The world needs a whole generation of young people, who refuse the diktats of family, private property and nation, to create the new road Dylan sings for with hoarse urgency.

Bob Dylan, from the 1960s. Credit: Reuters

Bob Dylan, from the 1960s. Credit: Reuters

Drought and starvation, packaging of the soul
Persecution, execution, governments out of control
You can see the writing on the wall inviting trouble
~ Bob Dylan, ‘Trouble’

The Nobel committee sprang a surprise yet again. But this time the surprise is not just in the name but in the genre as well. After awarding the 2015 Literature prize to Svetlana Alexievich, a prose-writer and journalist of polyphonic narratives, the Nobel has extended its literary hospitality by welcoming a singer-cum-songwriter. Though the decision and the genre are both new for the prize, songwriters were the first poets in history. Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy put it in words, saying “if you look far back, 5000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan.”

The Nobel committee proves to be ahead of its time, paradoxically, by endorsing the oldest form of poetry. In an era, when poetry around the world has become part of performative art, the committee also seems to be offering a nod to the trend. Danius also mentioned the “extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains.” That sums up the merit accorded to the inventiveness of his poetic form.

Though Dylan is the first singer-cum-song writer to win the prize, one must remember that Tagore was primarily a song-writer as well. The collection of poems he got the Nobel for in 1913 – Gitanjali (Song Offerings) – had many Bengali songs translated into English by the poet himself. One of them, ‘Tumi Shondharo Megho Mala’ (You, cloud-strings of dusk) found its way into Pablo Neruda’s famous collection, Twenty Poems and A Song of Despair. In the second edition of the book it was acknowledged that the sixteenth poem in Neruda’s collection, ‘In My Sky at Twilight’, was a “paraphrase” of Tagore’s poem. In The Light of India, Octavio Paz gently mentioned, in “Twenty Poems and the Song of Despair, there is an echo, at certain moments, of Tagore’s voice.” Neruda’s act, his song of despair, is a historic occasion in the paraphrasing of a song into poetry.

Danius also called Dylan “a great sampler”, which is true in the light of Dylan’s exploration into folk, blues, country, gospel, rock and roll, jazz, and Irish and Scottish folk music. Though uninitiated listeners often complained about his atonal, gruff voice which they found unsuitable for singing, Dylan was never interested in melodic renditions. The American writer, Joyce Carol Oates, put it well about Dylan’s “raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing”. But it is Dylan’s tremendously powerful and complex lyrics that set him apart from other English songwriters. Leonard Cohen’s dark lyricism is too enwrapped in gothic imagery to compete with Dylan’s apocalyptic vision and political radicalism. In the song, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, Dylan writes,

‘How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
A complete unknown, like a rolling stone’

It speaks to the vagabond and the homeless, as much as to the migrant, the person looking for her identity in the streets. The song empathises, offers a warning (‘you shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you’), and parts with an ironic shot at being free: ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose / You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal.’ If you pay more attention, you will realise that apart from spelling out the predicaments of a homeless subject, the lyrics also make covert digs at the hypocrisy of bourgeois life. There are many such double-edged, layered touches in Dylan’s songs.

The Dylan-esque individual is never the singular man, but the man torn between existence and history. The personal is always slipping away into larger connections, as he makes his way through troubled times. In ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, Dylan goes,

‘As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred.’

The private is always less in trying to understand the problem that afflicts everyone. Not only America, the whole world of techno-individuals needs to hear these lines loud and smash the alienated mirrors of its soul. In another stanza of the same song, Dylan mocks not only at advertising boards, but the ridiculous psychological lures of capitalist culture:

‘Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won.’

In The Times They Are A-Changin’, Dylan’s scathing admonition of conservatism, he sings to fathers and mothers:

‘don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.’

Such lines evoke nostalgia, they bring back the era of the 1960s, and America needs it, as much as the rest of the world, with the clouds of regressive politics haunting our times. It needs a whole new generation of young people – who refuse the diktats of family, private property and nation, to create the new road Dylan sings for with hoarse urgency. For instance, when the nation’s bright and argumentative students are saying something new, media daddies on television and moralist uncles on the dining table should try and understand what is being said before behaving like outdated parents or worse. Remember Dylan in ‘Rainy Day Women’ singing,

‘They’ll stone ya when you’re at the breakfast table
They’ll stone ya when you are young and able’.

The lines are a bleak but fierce rage against hostility. This generation is Dylan’s as much as the ’60s generation, and even more so when the spirit of rebellion is brought back into the streets and the world’s stage.

The exciting aspect of granting the Nobel to Dylan is not only the way it elevates the literary merit of popular culture, but also the political significance it holds for our times. National economies are grappling with a deep crisis. Wars are being threatened and fought in the name of national interest and paranoia, trying to sinisterly drive away attention from the limits of neo-liberal promises. If a nation’s unfulfilled greed can be replaced by the language of war, it calls for introspection regarding where the world is heading with its ecological and human disasters. Dylan’s apocalyptic vision in ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, written in 1962, rings closer as ever:

‘I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard.
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.’

Dylan is a singer with a working class biography. He also carries in his heart a Jewish melancholy. His music has always spoken for the underdog. With the US presidential elections coming up, this is a good moment for people to revisit what was sung and lost in the 1960s, when Dylan first burst upon our consciousness. The difference between those times and the present is the difference between dreams and paranoia. In the name of securing the nation for its most privileged citizens, there is a campaign against others, outsiders. Dylan had the heart of the outsider, the outlaw, in his music, or else he couldn’t have written, ‘If my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.’

When the world is going insane, it needs poetry to be sung, to come into the streets and announce the arrival of a world we are yet to fully decipher, but which alone can save us from the dismal one being offered by the ‘Masters of War’. Congratulations, Bob Dylan.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. He has most recently contributed to Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin India, 2016). He is currently an adjunct professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.