The prophet’s voice: Is Dylan a songwriter or poet?

Basic Dylan

Does he deserve it? The Nobel Committee awarded Bob Dylan the prize for literature. And the day after stories appeared casting doubt on the choice.

The general rants ranged from he’s a songwriter, give him a Grammy, not a Nobel, to writers need these awards to sell books. Why choose someone who’s already wealthy? And then several like, okay, give it to him, but I can’t stand his singing voice!

I love Dylan won a Nobel Prize for Literature. I wouldn’t have thought to nominate him, but as soon as I heard the choice, it made perfect sense.

My first thought was his influence. It’s profound. It moves across all the arts. Paul Simon doesn’t write the songs he writes without Dylan. Neither does John Lennon. Sitting at the cultural hinge of the 20th century, Dylan points the way forward with such force, it’s impossible to reconcile his ageless voice with his actual age. How do you write those words at 19 years old? Where does this come from?

Alan Ginsburg wept when he heard Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The words broke through the barrier 20th-century art had been pushing against for fifty years. Dylan’s words were an explosion that had been simmering in the lofts and urban streets. It’s like the emotions, the ideas, the experiences were there, in the air, gathering, and Dylan became a sonic lense for all this scattered Beat energy, focused the beam with such intensity it burned a giant hole in our collective unconsciousness and birthed an entirely new world on 4th Street in New York City.

If the conclusion of World War Two represented the absolute nadir of human existence, Dylan’s unexpected appearance gave context to the lingering trauma of unbridled fascism and cautiously pointed a way forward out of the swamp. An answer blowing in the wind, yes, but an answer delivered in the cynic’s wary voice, because of the truth humankind had all recently faced: man’s hate willfully destroy man’s love at the slightest provocation.

Our future, Dylan seemed to say, is delicately balanced over a churning abyss.

All of these dense nouns and verbs, a rapid fire pushing us back against the wall, challenging us, every artist, every banker, every teacher, astronaut, and farmer, challenging us to look again and stop. We were not allowed to rush past this moment. Something had happened to the world, and something would happen again soon enough if we didn’t change our game.

All of this delivered in that voice.

About that voice.

The voice is the clue. The voice is the answer. The questions that have floated around in the last couple of days about Dylan and is he a poet, is he a songwriter, is his work literature? Listen to the voice. What do you hear?

His voice carries across time. I can hear his voice in the dancing sparks of aboriginal fires, in the city hum at 3 AM, in the cracks of a shifting earth. I remember when I first heard that voice. It stopped me cold. I was a child, but the voice drew dreams for me, carried its truth in the rawest form I’d ever heard, and carries truth still, decades later. It is a voice that echoes in both directions, to the past, and to the future, defines the present in an restless, endless spiraling process. It is not a new voice, and it’s a voice that hasn’t yet been heard. It is the prophet’s voice.

Dylan himself has said he doesn’t know where those songs came from. I believe that. Prophecy arrives whole cloth.

So Bob Dylan wins a Noble Prize for Literature. His art is transcendent, beyond any label, we might slap on it to fit neatly on a bookshelf. It is not poetry. It is not lyric. It is not Fiction, or History, or Chemistry. It sits above all that. It’s ethereal, it’s elusive, it shifts. It’s brand new and always there. You recognize it, though it’s hard to pin down. You can give a class in it and everybody gets an ‘A’, because the voice absorbs all of our experiences equally.

We hear the voice clearly. It rings true. It resonates with truth. And that deserves every accolade we can carve on a wall.

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