The literary world was aflutter yesterday with a last-minute rumor that Bob Dylan would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. No dice, it turns out; today, the prize went to Tomas Tranströmer, a little-known Swedish poet.
But with no disrespect to possibly-brilliant-and-definitely-obscure Swedish verse, Dylan deserves his day.
The fact that Dylan was even under consideration might come as a surprise, but it turns out he's been nominated for the literature prize every year since 1996. And the question of whether he's a poet or a songwriter dates at least back to 1965, when he it was posed to him at a press conference — and Dylan famously replied, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."
Literary critics have since said otherwise — most notably, the British scholar Sir Christopher Bruce Ricks, who wrote the 500-page tome "Dylan's Visions of Sin." Ricks close-reads Dylan the way he does Tennyson, as when he takes this couplet from the 1975 song "Idiot Wind":
Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
and notes how brilliantly Dylan expresses the metaphorical relationship between the two domes — the head and the head of state.
Well, sure. But also, "Idiot Wind" is just so angry you can feel it in your joints — and encapsulates frustration at a nonsensical political establishment so well that it ought to be an anthem at Occupy Wall Street protests. In fact, Dylan might be the chief reason so many protest movements have appropriated '60s counterculture. No voice from that time was more lyrical and pointed than Dylan's, and no one since has found a better way to express idealism and frustration with the establishment. As a journalist, I have to admit that "The Times They Are A-Changin'" still works as a warning:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
Dylan's protest music will always define him, but he also penned beautiful songs about love and loss and bitterness. ("Don't Think Twice" might be the best kiss-off song in history.) As he has aged, so has his music, which increasingly grapples with loss, regret, and the passage of time. Take these lyrics from "Not Dark Yet," from the 1997 album "Time Out of Mind":
I was born here and I'll die here, against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Actually, it's not the same without the music. With Dylan, the two are inextricable, but that makes him no less of a literary giant. Poetry has always been an oral tradition. It's just that now, instead of lutes, we go electric. And if the poets who were cloistered in literary magazines and ivory towers were compelled to speak or sing their words aloud, perhaps they wouldn't be quite so cloistered. Someday — mark my words — a rapper will win the Nobel Prize, too.
Globe file photo: Bob Dylan in a scene from the 1967 film "Don't Look Back," shot during Dylan's 1965 tour of England.