Whoever said that enjoying Bob Dylan’s songs is an acquired taste is a pretentious twat. The fact of the matter is that either you like that jingle-jangle mish-mash of nasal vocals, hairpin-bend collisions of images, metaphysical verse and music the very first time you hear it, or you don’t. The desire to make Dylan’s songs objects that are not ‘merely’ songs but something more ‘worthy’ such as ‘poetry’, stems from that old purdah fluttering between High Art and Popular Art. But it is in this shifting, shimmering ground where High Culture and Pop Culture collide that Dylan the Ambidexterous One plays his role as an iconic-iconoclastic songwriter so effectively.
The debate about whether Dylan is a singer-songwriter of greatness or an ISI-stamped ‘poet’ continues even after he received the honorary Pulitzer Prize on Tuesday — and this debate will continue even after he receives the Nobel for Literature one sunny day. But why such intense jostling, especially among the Baby Boomers, who now occupy the bench called ‘The Establishment’, to place Dylan among the Literaturewallas? Why can’t Dylan be left where he is — a songwriting phenomenon with searing poetic prowess? It seems that for many worthies, Dylan can’t be really, really appreciated until he shares the mantelpiece with literary canonical chaps such as Philip Roth, Keats, Rimbaud, Louis Ferlinghetti and Dylan Thomas.
This desire to de-fang Dylan of his ‘lowly’ ‘rock’n’roll musician’ status is only the most visible example of the growing post-modern habit of ‘upgrading’ contemporary popular artists to respectable Artisthood. Not too long ago, British novelist and critic Giles Foden compared the songs of Detroit rapper Eminem with the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning. It was as if by locating the sneakers-wearing, tracksuit-donning Badmouth of Rhyme in the context of an Eng. Lit. tutorial, the creator of Slim Shady was being saved from the rabble. Of course, the whole exercise of such a ‘rehabilitation’ comes in the form of exactly the opposite gesture: a dignified celebration of pop culture (read: the aesthetics of the rabble).
The task of High Culturing Dylan, of course, started much earlier, in earnest from the 1980s when the songwriter’s words were being compared to the works of canonical masters like Keats and Cervantes. (“In one of Dylan’s most memorable love songs, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” goes one recent PhD thesis, “dedicated to his then beloved wife Sara, we may find the imprint of Cervantes in the sad-eyed lady and sad-eyed prophet. Don Quixote is called the Caballero de la Triste Figura (the Knight of the Rueful Countenance)....”
But as cultural critic Peter Childs (always a good name to drop when making such a case) points out on behalf of the rest of us who prefer listening to Dylan rather than underlining and reading his lyrics, “[Whether Dylan can be called a poet or not is] an ultimately futile discussion inasmuch as Dylan’s lyrics are specifically written to accompany music and Keats’ poetry is not. They are thus different art forms and comparing them in certain respects is little more edifying than comparing a novel and a film.” Dylan, unlike, say, Sahir Ludhianvi, will be remembered for writing words that are only written to music, and not also for writing the equivalent of ‘tuneless’ ghazals.
But the attempt to give Dylan the distinction of being a poet continues with deadly earnest. The fact is that rock’n’roll — with its (posed or genuine) ‘anti-Establishmentness’ hardwired into its bigger identity of pop culture — in the hands of wordsmiths like Dylan utilises this unstable mixture of the Serious that is associated with Art and the extreme ironic pose against Art that is pop art. To make a canonical poet out of Dylan and comparing, say, Absolutely Sweet Marie (“But to live outside the law, you must be honest/I know you always say that you agree/But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?”) with either Schubert’s song, Ave Maria, or Rimbaud’s poem, ‘Romance’ (“Your mad heart goes Crusoeing through all the romances,/ When, under the light of a pale street lamp,/ Passes a young girl with charming little airs,/ In the shadow of her father’s terrifying stiff collar.”) is really a parlour game.
But does that mean that we should completely jettison any thoughts of Dylan’s songs having connections and pathways with things High Cultural? Of course not. If Andy Warhol could make High Art out of soup cans, if Philip Larkin could infuse his poetry with shavings from the Swinging Sixties, there’s no reason why Dylan can’t mine (and he has mined furiously) from the likes of Federico García Lorca, the Old Testament, Verlaine and, of course, Cervantes.
Oxford Professor Christopher Ricks, author of critical books like Decisions and Revisions in T.S. Eliot, Keats and Embarrassment and Dylan’s Visions of Sin, tells us, “I don’t think there’s anybody that uses words better than he does.” But despite academic papers like ‘Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited: Imagery of Alienation in Music’ coming out faster than you can say ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’, Ricks also believes that “his is an art of a mixed medium... The question would be whether his art can be described as literature.”
And the simple answer to that is no. Tags like ‘protest singer’, ‘folk singer’ and ‘conscience of a generation’ have been restrictive enough — and downright incorrect when applied to Dylan. To add the public message-like label of ‘Poet’ not only limits our aesthetic enjoyment of Dylan’s songs but also cuts off the space where High Art and Low Art clash constantly — the favourite grazing grounds of Bob Dylan.
While the Pulitzer brings joy to all the polo-necked lot who have waited all these years for Dylan to join the ranks of the anointed, let’s conduct a small experiment. Here are a few lines from Positively 4th Street:
“I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you.”
Now listen to the words accompanied by Dylan’s sneering voice and the pumping Hammond organ on your sound system.
I rest my case.