“Aretha with no goals, eternally single & one step soft of heaven/ let it be understood that she owns this melody along with her emotional diplomats & her earth & her musical secrets.”
This is a passage from the beginning of Tarantula, the book written in 1966 by the man named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016. The Swedish Academy, which selects the recipient, said it was recognising him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
The man, in case you don’t already know, is Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known to millions of fans as Bob Dylan, a name he chose because he was influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
Unlike other winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, those who have never heard of Dylan would have a hard time if they hit the bookstores (or shopped online) for his published works. There’s just Tarantula, a strange mix of experimental poetry and stream of consciousness prose that Dylan has said he never wanted to write and Chronicles: Volume One, the first part of his memoirs.
But the real poetry is in the lyrics of the 500-odd songs that have graced Dylan’s 37 albums. Consider this from the song Born In Time: On the rising curve/Where the ways of nature will test every nerve/You won’t get anything you don’t deserve/Where we were born in time.
Dylan will never be remembered as one of the greatest singers of the rock’n’roll era but it’s the lyrics of his songs like these that have thrilled his fans around the world, including Lou Majaw of Shillong, who hosts a concert every year to celebrate the musician’s birthday.
There will be those who will question the Nobel Foundation’s decision to recognise Dylan, asking whether he is really worthy of joining a list that includes worthies such as Rudyard Kipling, Rabindranath Tagore, William Butler Yeats and Eugene O’Neill and Ernest Hemingway.
Dylan is no stranger to such controversies -- one has to only look back at the row that followed his decision to abandon his folk roots and switch over to an electrified rock’n’roll sound at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, a performance that was greeted with boos.
But then this is also the man who won an honorary Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”.
As for me, I know what I’m going to be doing tonight - I’m going to be cueing up my favourite Dylan tracks on my music system to lose myself in the beauty of his lyrics. Now, I can even refer to it as literature, since it’s gotten the Nobel stamp.