The arguments against Dylan getting the Nobel Prize in literature seem to go something like this:
1) He doesn’t deserve it because he’s really just not very good
2) He doesn’t deserve it because he doesn’t write literature
3) He doesn’t deserve it because he’s not a poet, he’s a songwriter
4) Having the lyrics in song format gives Dylan an unfair advantage because the music can further elevate the lyrics.
I feel that alot has been said about the first three and people can make their own evaluations based on the arguments that are out there. I would like to dwell on the fourth point for a moment.
To illustrate a point, consider the poem “If”, by Rudyard Kipling, a British Nobel laureate from 1895:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
A nice little nutshell of wisdom. A challenge to rise up to your full potential as a human being. For the sake of this little experiment, go through it again and make up a bouncy melody to go along. If you can’t think of anything try the melody from “Forever Young”. To me reading it with the melody didn’t greatly enhance the message or power of the poem. Even this reading by Dennis Hopper didn’t really do it for me:
Now read the lyrics to the Dylan song “Highlands”. Try to just read it without invoking the melody of the song or hearing Dylan’s distinctive voice in your head.
Well my heart's in The Highlands, gentle and fair
Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air
Bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow
My heart's in The Highlands
I'm gonna go there when I feel good enough to go
Windows were shaking all night in my dreams
Everything was exactly the way that it seems
Woke up this mornin' and I looked at the same old page
Same old rat race, life in the same old cage
I don't want nothin' from anyone, ain't that much to take
Wouldn't know the difference between a real blonde and a fake
Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery
I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me
Well my heart's in The Highlands wherever I roam
That's where I'll be when I get called home
The wind it whispers to the buckeye trees of rhyme
Well, my heart's in The Highlands
I can only get there one step at a time
I'm listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound
Someone's always yellin' "Turn it down"
Feel like I'm driftin', driftin' from scene to scene
I'm wonderin' what in the devil could it all possibly mean
Insanity is smashin' up against my soul
You could say I was on anything but a roll
If I had a conscience, well I just might blow my top
What would I do with it anyway, maybe take it to the pawn shop?
My heart's in The Highlands at the break of dawn
By the beautiful lake of the Black Swan
Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low
Well my heart's in The Highlands, only place left to go
I'm in Boston town in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Or maybe I do but I'm just really not sure
Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her
Well it must be a holiday, there's nobody around
She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
I said "Tell me what I want"
She say "You probably want hard boiled eggs"
I said "That's right, bring me some"
She says "We ain't got any, you picked the wrong time to come"
Then she says "I know you're an artist, draw a picture of me"
I said "I would if I could but
I don't do sketches from memory"
Well she's there, she says "I'm right here in front of you
Or haven't you looked?"
I say "All right, I know but I don't have my drawin' book"
She gives me a napkin, she say "You can do it on that"
I say "Yes I could but I don't know where my pencil is at"
She pulls one out from behind her ear
She says "Alright now go ahead draw me I'm stayin' right here"
I make a few lines and I show it for her to see
Well she takes the napkin and throws it back and says
"That don't look a thing like me"
I said "Oh kind miss, it most certainly does"
She say "You must be joking", I said "I wish I was"
She says "You don't read women authors do ya?"
At least that's what I think I hear her say
Well I say "How would you know, and what would it matter anyway?"
Well she says "Ya just don't seem like ya do"
I said "You're way wrong"
She says "Which ones have you read then?", I say "I’ve read Erica Jong"
She goes away for a minute, and I slide on out of my chair
I step outside back to the busy street, but nobody's goin' anywhere
Well my heart's in The Highlands with the horses and hounds
Way up in the border country far from the towns
With the twang of the arrow and the snap of the bow
My heart's in The Highlands, can't see any other way to go
Every day is the same thing, out the door
Feel further away than ever before
Some things in life it just gets too late to learn
Well I'm lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns
I see people in the park, forgettin' their troubles and woes
They're drinkin' and dancin', wearin' bright colored clothes
All the young men with the young women lookin' so good
Well, I'd trade places with any of 'em, in a minute if I could
I'm crossin' the street to get away from a mangy dog
Talkin' to myself in a monologue
I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat
Somebody just asked me if I've registered to vote
The sun is beginnin' to shine on me
But it's not like the sun that used to be
The party's over and there's less and less to say
I got new eyes, everything looks far away
Well my heart's in The Highlands at the break of day
Over the hills and far away
There's a way to get there, and I'll figure it out somehow
Well I'm already there in my mind and that's good enough for now
The poem is a bleak and melancholic vision of loss and alienation. The brave and honest confession of a man who is so worn out by the pettiness of others that he yearns for escape to the Scottish Highlands (Where he owns a mansion), to live out the rest of his days communing with nature.
I must admit I found it difficult to read this without hearing all the other elements that are present on the recording. Those aspects are inseparable from the poem in my mind. However, what really added to the power of the song is not primarily the music, but rather Dylan’s intonation, which helps to illustrate the intention of the lyrics. For example, the way that he says “Somebody just asked me if I've registered to vote”; eyes rolling back into his head.
This made me realise, the complainers are right on this point! Maybe Dylan does have an unfair advantage. His medium allows him to write poetry and then recite it himself to the listener with a backing band and a catchy tune, to perform the songs live on tour and reach a huge audience on the internet and radio. What Dylan really has, that the typical writer of conventional literature does not have, is a more powerful mechanism to disseminate and promote his songs. The same could perhaps be said for Shakespeare. Through the performance of his plays, which toured across the English countryside, laypeople (most of whom could not even read), had access to these great works of literature. However, when it really comes down to it, it is the creative output of the artist that should be judged and not their popularity.
Although Dylan’s popularity is what has kept him relevant for all these years and allowed him to have a long enough career to accomplish what he has, his popularity has also worked against him in many ways. One can only assume that that amount of touring, drugs and booze, material success and crazed fans might have a detrimental effect on one’s sanity. In truth, it is a testament to Dylan’s accomplishment that he was able to maintain the quality of his output and his vision and artistic integrity despite his popular success. He stayed true to the songs and used them to raise himself to a higher plateau. He dreamt but did not make dreams his master. He thought—but did not make thoughts his aim. Dylan persevered, he eschewed material wealth, he treated both his triumphs and his disasters as the impostors that they were. Even the Nobel prize win he has treated as an impostor.