When Joyce Sutphen, Minnesota’s poet laureate, got the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, “I was whooping the way you do when the Twins win the World Series,” she said. “I was surprised — and so happy.”
As a musician, “he really is a poet,” she said, with “substantive, thick lyrics.” An example is “Desolation Row,” which opens with a reference to a 1920 lynching of three African-Americans in Duluth:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging,
They’re painting the passports brown/
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors,
The circus is in town.
Sutphen, who owns every Dylan album, including the first one she ever bought, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” said the “poetic community is very happy with this. Everybody I know is a big Dylan fan.”
Deborah Keenan, a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University in St. Paul, considers Dylan as much a literary figure as a musician. “He gets quoted as much as Shakespeare,” she said. His Nobel win is “a beautiful validation of an amazing art form.”
Jeff Shotts, poetry editor at Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, expressed pleasant surprise that a songwriter was honored in the literature category. But it didn’t come to him as a total shock; there has been “quite a bit of whispering and grumbling” about the possibility of Dylan being honored by the Nobel committee for several years, he noted. “Some pretty prominent literary critics have been championing this idea.”
And the grumbling? Well, that would be from “purists” who believe that “what Bob Dylan is doing is not literature, not poetry.”
Shotts is not a purist. At Graywolf, “We try to expand the sense of what literature can be.” And the selection of a musical bard is actually traditional, hearkening to the lyric poetry of Sappho and Homer. “Poetry’s ancient roots were sung,” he said.
In addition to quibbling about how Dylan should be categorized, critics have objected to lauding a white man for creating art that “stands on the shoulders of so many black musical traditions,” including jazz and blues, Shotts said. Others complained that Dylan is “already celebrated in every possible way,” and that the prize would mean more to a poet with less visibility.
Still, Shotts is excited about Dylan being honored in such a big way. “There’s no question he is one of the great lyric writers of our time.” He cited “Tangled Up in Blue,” which “shows his trickster side, his love of language and nonsense. The craft of that poetry, with the convoluted syntax — these are tools of a poet.”
Shotts also loves the “political outrage” in such songs as “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”:
Come senators, congressmen please heed the call/
Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall/
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled/
There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’
Thom Tammaro, poet and professor of English at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, acknowledged that the choice of Dylan is “controversial,” but Tammaro, too, is “delighted” by it. “He’s an American artist with an international reputation and following, who transcends geographical boundaries.”
Dylan’s songs “always focused on language,” said Tammaro, who considers “Desolution Row” on a literary par with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
“I listen to it more than I should,” he said of the song. He even has its last few stanzas displayed in his bookshelf.
Tammaro and a colleague are at work on an anthology, “Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan,” to be published in late 2017 — “not soon enough,” he laughed, “speaking as a marketer.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784 @stribkimpalmer