Come writers and critics
Who prophesise with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin...
When Bob Dylan wrote and sang these lines long ago, little did the world imagine that at age 75 he would continue to make the public bristle over the “literary" value of his lines. This, notwithstanding the fact that the Oxford Book of American Poetry included his song Desolation Row, in its 2006 edition, and Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009, “further cementing his reputation as a brilliant literary stylist”, according to a New York Times article.
Social media is a great teacher of public emotion these days. And so on October 13, 2016, shortly after 4.30 PM IST, emotions were afire.
As a poet and writer from Assam who has mainly grown up on oral lore, Khana's vachanas, Assamese and Bengali folks songs from Hindu-Muslim-Tribal traditions, re-told poetry and tales via highly reputed artists such as Bhupen Hazarika, and moreover, Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel-winning songs (Gitanjali being a collection of songs or hymns), I don’t find the Nobel robbed of its esoteric charm by Dylan's win. In my "wow, really" moment – I had one – not even once did I think this was apocalypse. Certainly not comparable to the possibility of Donald Trump's winning the US Presidency, a social media line some people toed. Counterculture shocks liberals, it seems.
What perhaps got forgotten in the hullaballoo is that the Nobel Prize hasn't always embodied the very best in literature. The myth around it is towering. Even as long lists of poets and writers have been overlooked by the Prize, we accord it importance only because of certain incidental and historical reasons.
This brings us back to how everyone on social media seems deeply affected by this year's decision. The first significant quote I saw expressing resentment, reproduced from Twitter, was from a writer I watched live a few years ago in Washington, DC:
I somehow quickly recall how more "high-brow" writers at that venue were smirking how populist and "jokey" Shteyngart's own craft was.
That, now, brings us to the question of what is "high" or "low" in literature, and whether the Nobel in Literature is mostly for novels aka fiction only (some the backlash stated that Dylan had no novels to his credit). What about poetry? What about screenwriting? Although we know that poets and dramatists have been given this holy grail.
So evidently, going through a barrage of online responses, it seems the corpus of a songwriter, of a pop and beat category artist, is equivalent only to what constitutes "low" or not sublime in literature. A headline screamed: "A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president."
And so these highbrow judges – who are definitely not the Swedish Academy – likened this year's prize to the ultimate American tragedy. This, of course, is contrary to what the Nobel Committee said, that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Obviously not many could delve into these lines:
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
While Dylan has become only the second man in history to win both the Nobel and the Oscar, Sara Danils, permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, said: “If you look far back, 5,000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it.”
Poetic texts meant to be performed have not always been inducted smoothly into the pantheon of literature by the gatekeepers. Homer and Sappho, reported to have faced stiff opposition in their times, are icons nobody challenges anymore. But looking at our times, would one purge Gil Scott-Heron or Allen Ginsberg from the Nobel corridors today? These are questions playing seriously in the minds of young poets for whom Dylan is as much a political influence as a poetic one in order to make their rebel voices heard.
Jamia Milia Islamia research scholar Shalim M Hussain who is a co-founder of "Miyah poetry" – a poetry movement from marginalised Muslims from Assam's char (embankment) areas – maintains that Dylan is important for them. He specifically mentions Blowin’ in the Wind because it is such a simple song.
"After We shall overcome, I think it is the most easily recognised appeal for humanity and compassion,” Hussain said. “To know that a handful of simple verses can move people all over the world as they move us is in itself a liberating feeling. Whether Dylan deserves a Nobel or whether we appreciate his evolution over the decades is not really important. He gave us a song to rally around – that's a great contribution to the human spirit."
A song to rally around that could change the fate of humanity, and a whole body of many such songs. Have we seen examples elsewhere to be called literary? If so, where? If not, why not?
Social media warriors also questioned, naturally laced with large doses of cynicism, the viability of slam poetry winning in Literature. Slam came to me long ago in these lines:
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
Easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
As a poet, what I turn to then is an examination of my own "literary upbringing". Did I, and we, not imbibe so much from Bhupen Hazarika, Hemango Biswas, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, and Muslim zikir and zaari from Assam, as well as Bhatiyali and Dhamail of Bengal? Did we leave the songs from the tea gardens behind just because they were spoken, pidgin, and not literary enough? And for how long shall we leave them behind?
Dalit poetry, most of which is sung and recited and re-created generation to generation – and here I'm referring to countless generations and not our recent memory of “high tradition” instituted through awards foreign or homegrown – is all literature but for the myopic view of mainstream highbrow literary clubs. The feisty Gaddar will be invited to street protests, but an academy award would never shortlist his name.
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone
While we can continue debating whether there were better candidates than Dylan for the Prize, the flippant and rather disrespectful comparison to Chetan Bhagat or Kim Kardashian seems uncalled for. In a world fraught with the palpable threat of rabid rightwing conservatism, Dylan might at least be seen as a reminder to raise voices against the likes of Trump.
It's true that Indian literary commentators suffer an anxiety about Chetan Bhagat, whether they're for or against him. To read on social media, therefore, that "Bhagat is trying very hard to win the next Nobel" indicates a lack of knowledge about either Dylan's (and those within that tradition before or after him) corpus or the strong folk poetic traditions in India. I exempt Bhagat.
Also, it's imperative to ask, what is normative in literature then? Is it only grammar, rules of creative writing, textbook templates of rhetoric and devices, and of course "good English", another anxiety shared by middle and upper middle class Indians? Those that I know wishing to demolish “seminar-room writing” suddenly seem to be completely jolted by the "street" taking over.
Summed up poet Koyamparambath Satchidanandan: "One may have different views on this prize as earlier prizes have mostly gone to serious writers; but none can question Bob Dylan's positive impact on radical music and popular culture. A deviation from the norm, but a happy deviation as it makes one rethink the very concept of 'literature'."
As translator of the divine Tamil mystic Andal’s songs, poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria is delighted the award went to Dylan who is a "wonderful bard".
"I've long admired his poetry. Let's remember that the radical – and raging – Bhakti and Sufi literatures are songs. In fact, much of our wisdom literature, be it margi/grand or desi/local, was conceived as utterances and songs, set to meter. It’s time we threw open canonical doors to admit different visions and voices that constitutes world literature. It's time for enrichment," Chabria said.
Amid all this heartbreak and rejoicing comes Joan Baez's statement, issued through her official Facebook page:
I agree with those who laud Baez's generosity. She is an artist who perhaps has moved a far greater number of people, including women and the marginalised, than Dylan. Perhaps even Dylan knows it, whether he wrote these lines for her or not.
And she takes just like a woman
And she aches just like a woman
And she wakes just like a woman
Yeah, but she breaks just like a little girl.
Concordia University professor and director of Summer Literary Conference Mikhail Iossel points out that the Nobel Prize in essence has long been a single occasion for the world at large to celebrate or discover a lifetime's worth of work by some "famous or, conversely, relatively (or almost completely) obscure writer, poet or playwright". According to Iossel, the decision announced on October 13 expands the scope of that custom.
"The lyrics of Dylan's songs aren't poetry?” he asks. “By whose definition? Are they not literature? I for one believe his ‘non-poetry’ is poetry of a high order. There are, obviously, a number of eminently and perhaps more deserving writers / poets / playwrights out there. But that's the way it's always been, from the very outset. Today the award went to one of the greatest American and international cultural icons of the last half-century. I am perfectly happy with that outcome."
And that outcome should see literature fight back all that becomes a norm:
They’ll stone ya when you’re at the breakfast table
They’ll stone ya when you are young and able.