The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Bob Dylan. An unconventional choice by any measure. Prize-winners give a speech when they pick up their awards. Dylan, unconventionally, sent singer Patti Smith in his place, to sing one of his songs.
Finally, this week, Dylan forked over his speech—not in person but in an audio recording. The Academy described the speech as “extraordinary” and “eloquent.”
Extraordinary. I’m sure it is. It may be the first Nobel Prize speech delivered like a cabaret show, with a solo pianist noodling away. In the world of cabaret, musicians most often “noodle” to distract the audience from a singer’s vapid or over-extended between-songs patter.
Not that I’m calling Dylan’s speech vapid; that’s for you to judge. But as for over-extended, would anyone expect less of the man who pioneered the six-minute-long single? A six-minute-long single that was voted the #1 song of the 20th century. The entire 20th century. Now that’s extraordinary.
Most of the eloquence of Dylan’s speech derives from the three great works of literature he summarizes—at length. The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. He starts with Melville’s opus, the précis of which consumes nearly half of the 27 minutes of his speech. After—spoiler alert—Ahab goes down to his watery grave and Ishmael survives by floating on a coffin, Dylan concludes:
“That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”
And that’s it.
That’s it. And he’s on to the next book report.
Not even Bob Dylan understands why he won the Nobel
I suppose this was Dylan’s way of tying his work to “real” literature, the literature that resonated most with him when he was growing up. He says as much in the opening of the speech:
“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you.”
Except he didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t a speech so much as a word antipasto. He laid out the ingredients for a feast and invited each listener to assemble the speech he or she wanted.
Bob Dylan is an extraordinary poet. He knows his way around a metaphor as well as anyone—as well, perhaps, as the poet whose name he incorporated in his stage name, Dylan Thomas. He could have taken this occasion to speak about the importance of lyrics, the ability of lyrics set to music to catalyze change. He could have done a lot. Instead, he offered us book reports. (I wish he’d just hired a good speechwriter.)
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