Nobel Prizes

‘Poetic expression’ behind Bob Dylan’s Literature award

'Poetic expression' behind Bob Dylan's Literature award
Books on display at the venue of the 2016 Nobel Prize announcement. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
The 2016 Nobel Literature Prize winner's work has bridged the gap between poetry and music. The Local spoke to the head of the Swedish Academy about their choice.

Dylan was born in Minnesota, USA in May 1941. He began playing folk music in his teens, but it was a move to New York as a 20-year-old in 1961 that really sparked the start of his ascendancy.

The young musician soon became popular among the Greenwich Village folk scene, and quickly made his debut at the iconic Carnegie Hall within months of taking up residence in New York (The Local spoke to the Stockholm-based promoter who booked that show here).

AS IT HAPPENED: Bob Dylan wins the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

A record contract and first album followed, but it was with his sophomore release “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and anthemic opening track “Blowin’ in the Wind” that the songwriter really announced his arrival. He would go on to become one of the most iconic figures of the 1960s. 

Over half a century since his debut, Dylan has 37 studio albums to his name, but unlike many singer songwriters it is not his voice that receives the most praise (some would even argue it is his weakness).

Instead, it is the Minnesota native's texts that have truly defined him. Dylan’s writing is frequently hailed as being more like poetry than lyrics, and it was along those lines that the Swedish Academy praised him in a simple, one line press release justifying his 2016 Nobel Literature Prize win “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

The Swedish Academy’s Permanent Secretary Sara Danius expanded on that theme in an interview shortly after the announcement of the 2016 prize:

“He is a great poet. He is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition and he is a wonderful, original sampler. He embodies the tradition, and for 54 years now has been at it, reinventing himself constantly and creating a new identity,” she said.

Danius also revealed that the “vast majority” of the Swedish Academy voted for the American to win (in order for the vote to stand more than half of the 18 members must vote for a candidate), and there is certainly no denying Dylan’s mass popularity.

Someone who manages to bridge boundaries between music and literature, his victory certainly flies in the face of accusations that the Nobel Literature Prize is elitist and avoids rewarding popular writers. When speaking with media on Thursday Danius did not want to overstate the importance of having a well-known winner this year however:

“It’s great. But it doesn’t make a difference, he is a great poet,” she told The Local.

That doesn't mean everyone is likely to appreciate the unconventional decision to award a musician – music writer Paul Connolly argued to The Local that it was the equivalent of giving a screenwriter the Nobel Literature prize.

For Danius that isn't as far-fetched as it seems though. When it was put to the head of the Swedish Academy that Dylan's win could open the door to recognizing other forms of writing in future Nobel Prizes, she didn't rule it out, saying “technically it could. I don’t know”.

As for what Dylan himself thinks, we’ll have to wait for that. Danius admitted she would wait until the day’s press work was over before getting in touch with the new Nobel Laureate. The greeting? A simple “Hello, I’m Sara Danius calling from Sweden. Do you have a second?”