Comment on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize speech

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, my reaction was positive, as I’m sure the reaction was from a lot of people from my generation and older. I grew up on the notion that Dylan, the Beatles, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs, and many others were the poets of their generation. Once I began teaching English literature to first-year students, I often turned to song lyrics as a way in to talking about poetry. So, for me, Dylan’s Nobel Prize was recognition of something I had heard about and accepted for years.

When my dad asked if I’d like to write something about the acceptance speech for his blog, I went online to find it and read it. I read through it, marking it up and commenting in the margins as I do. It struck me as a large, very conventional middle (his discussion of three “classics” from his grammar school reading: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey) framed by something authentic from the poet.

His opening I find very effective – this is where Dylan describes his experience of being at a Buddy Holly concert and how it affected him and helped him make decisions about what he wanted to do with his life:

“Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me chills.”

And after hearing of Holly’s plane crash and death, Dylan mentions listening to Leadbelly sing “Cottonfields” on a record, and his reaction is again quite striking:

“[T]hat record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me.”

From that point, Dylan describes his youthful attempts to “pick up the vernacular” of American folk music, and how profoundly it shaped his understanding and his responses to experience. And he then ties in the foundational, canonical literature that Americans of his generation would have been exposed to, mentioning Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities, before turning to that large middle I mentioned.

It is here that Dylan shifts to more of a content-analysis, with a lot of plot summary and fairly conventional lists of the themes in these three works. At the time I first read it, I was unaware of the controversy surrounding his speech – the charges that he had plagiarized these parts from Sparks Notes or something similar. But in my initial reading, it did seem that the essay went from some real discussion of what I might call reception theory or, in a strictly literary setting, a reader-response approach, to a New Critical discussion of three great works. In other words, Dylan’s opening illustrates the effects that W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley dismissed as the “affective fallacy” (“[Objective criticism] will not talk of tears, prickles or other physiological symptoms, of feeling angry, joyful, hot, cold, or intense, or of vaguer states of emotional disturbance, but of shades of distinction and relation between objects of emotion.”), but then the middle section falls right into the New Critical norms. Perhaps this is what Bob Dylan thinks “literary criticism” is? Perhaps that is how it was taught to him?

And then again, as he comes out of the long middle section, Dylan asks “So what does it all mean?” His ending returns to the affective dimension, and even invokes the trope of inexpressible art and our response to it. He sounds like any songwriter being interviewed in the popular media these days: “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important.” No important themes, no political comment.

In his final paragraph, Dylan does stress that poetry – songs – is “alive in the land of the living”. Reading dead letters on the page is not what we are to experience from plays or from songs – they are to be spoken or sung – performed. Certainly that was how he intended his words to affect his audiences.

All in all, an interesting piece of writing. I think Bob Dylan is ultimately more articulate as a poet and songwriter than he is as a literary critic – but then, what else would we expect?