Wilkes professor, retired G.A.R. teacher say Bob Dylan deserves Nobel Prize
When the Swedish Academy announced Oct. 13 that working faction, the Nobel Committee, selected Bob Dylan as the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, congratulation for the iconic American songwriter was not unanimous.
The honor, bestowed upon an American for this first time since Toni Morrison received the award in 1993, sparked controversy over whether Dylan’s celebrated catalogue of lyrics can be considered literature and whether the lines between high art and low art should be forever blurred. Literary heavyweights and educators spoke out since the announcement, stating various and opposing perspectives on whether “the voice of a generation” deserves literature’s highest accolade.
According to nobelprize.org, Dylan was awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” On the website, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, is quoted as saying, “He can be read, and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition.”
Others have said that because Dylan’s writing was created with the attention of being performed with a piece of music, accompanied by instrumentation and live oral expression, it does not qualify as poetry. The consensus being it cannot stand alone as a written work on a page.
Award-winning novelist and Guggenheim Fellow, Rabih Alameddine tweeted perhaps the most critical statement, saying, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars. This is almost as silly as Winston Churchill.”
Alameddine later clarified that he respects Dylan as a songwriter, but he’d have awarded the prize to poets more deserving.
Knoxville, Tenn. songwriter and retired English teacher, Lex Zaleta, disagrees. Teaching in the Wilkes-Barre school district for 35 years, the Nanticoke native often used Dylan’s songs to teach his students about literary devices such as alliteration and rhyme scheme in an accessible way.
As early as the 1970s, Zaleta was telling students Dylan would win a Nobel Prize.
Zaleta said Dylan is not so far from the type of poet Edgar Allan Poe was.
“I think Poe was probably his own one man band,” Zaleta said. “He wrote his own rhythm section into his pieces. Take ‘Annabel Lee’ for instance. A folk singer can sing that just how it is.”
Zaleta said arguments that Dylan’s work is not literature overlook the fact that playwrights, who also create pieces designed for performance, were bestowed the honor, including Jose Echegary, who won in 1904 and Eugene O’Neill, who won in 1936.
“Dylan’s treatment of the human condition reached millions more than the slender books of poetry that have helped past writers claim the prize,” Zaleta said. “A poem is on a page, and if you recite it out loud, it’s already changed. If you put music to it, it doesn’t cease to be a poem.”
Stephen Crane Award-winning author, Gary Shteyngart tweeted against the decision, saying, “I totally get the Nobel committee (sic). Reading books is hard.”
Wilkes University associate professor of English Tom Hamill said he understands the plight of writers who aren’t satisfied with the Nobel Committee’s judgment, but he doesn’t think it should bar Dylan from the prize.
“There are a couple of ways I fully understand the lack of celebration of poets as poets,” Hamill said. “It maybe draws attention to poets on the ground, as it were, who are not recognized and calls attention to the need to recognize literature as literature … but I would suggest a great American troubadour is being honored for his work.”
Hamill has taught Dylan’s work as part of a general English education course at Wilkes, and he said he sees Dylan as a poet who is “bridging the folk tradition with the high literary tradition.”
The educator said using music in the literature cannon opens up accessibility for students that is beneficial and exciting, and he challenges his students to negotiate the material with the same level of care and struggle they would with another text.
“As much as it might be seen as a slight to the tradition, I would suggest that it speaks to the reach of literature and its influence on pop culture,” Hamill said of Dylan’s honor.
Hamill and Zaleta are not the only academics who have embraced Dylan in the literary tradition. The Oxford Book of American Poetry included Dylan’s “Desolation Row” in its 2006 edition, and Cambridge University first published “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” in 2009.
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter @TLArts