The Swedish Academy today awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, the American singer/songwriter. Dylan, 75, is the first musician to win the award, and his selection is certainly an unorthodox choice and has received mixed reviews. In choosing a popular musician, the Swedish Academy has redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.
In its citation, the Swedish Academy credited Mr. Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, likened Dylan's work and his literary merits to those of the earliest Western poets: "If you look back, far back … you discover Homer and Sappho. And they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be performed, often together with instruments. . . . But we still read Homer and Sappho and enjoy it. It's the same way with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition, in the grand English poetic tradition" (https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/).
“Dylan's lyrics have receives detailed scrutiny from academics and poets. Literary critic Christopher Ricks published Dylan's Visions of Sin, a 500-page analysis of Dylan's work, placing him in the context of Eliot, Keats and Tennyson, claiming that Dylan was a poet worthy of the same close analysis. Former British poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion argued that his lyrics should be studied in schools. Since 1996, academics have lobbied the Swedish Academy to award Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Dylan).
Dylan has often sprinkled literary allusions into his music and cited the influence of poetry on his lyrics. (See http://www.cbc.ca/books/2016/10/books-bob-dylan-has-loved.html.) He has published poetry and prose, including his 1971 collection, Tarantula, and Chronicles: Volume One, the first part of his memoirs published in 2004, and six books of his art. Coincidentally, his collected lyrics from 1961-2012 are due out on Nov. 1.
The Nobel comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or just over $1.2 million (CAD).
(Photo of Bob Dylan's childhood home taken by me in June 2011 in Hibbing, Minnesota. Note the name of the street.)