Complicated and complicating poet

NEW YORK • "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 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 have long sensed to be true: that 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 Dylan's words were delivered, as English poet Philip Larkin once put it, in a "cawing, derisive voice" that seemed to carry the weight of myth and prophecy. Larkin was not Dylan's greatest fan. He found the lyrics to Desolation Row to be "possibly half-baked".

It took a different Englishman, critic and scholar Christopher Ricks, to make the case most fully for Dylan as a complicated and complicating poet. In Ricks' sly 2004 book, Dylan's Visions Of Sin, he persuasively compared 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," Ricks wrote. He added: "Human dealings of every kind are his for the artistic seizing."

Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, was inspired when young by potent American vernacular music, songs by performers such as Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.

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 heard pop songs with so many oracular, tumbling words in them.

When Bruce Springsteen inducted 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 United States 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 he could write prose as fluently as lyrics. This needed proving only because Dylan's sole novel, Tarantula, 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 realise they miss you."

Everyone has his own private anthology of favourite 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 is 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, Dylan has been recognised 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 work - "with its iambics, its clackety-clack rhymes, and its scattergun images", as 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 apparent. He is capable of rhetorical organisation; 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 non-traditional forms of writing.

In what feels like a blow for scalding wordplay, the academy has attended to 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, Ricks summed up my sense of the best of Dylan's oeuvre: "I just think we're terrifically lucky to be alive at a time when he is."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Complicated and complicating poet'. Print Edition | Subscribe