Nobel Prize for Literature? Come on, Bob Dylan is an Oralist.

In my book Digitopia Blues – Race, Technology and the American Voice, I described Dylan’s impact this way:

Dylan signaled the triumph of oral poetry for white America, the reconciliation of the word and the body, of the singer and the song, of the poet and the community. From here on in, it was a party.

9780920159897-ol-0-mOral poetry is not literature, yet an oral poet has been awarded the Nobel prize for literature, and this oddity has triggered a profusion of articles about the relationship between Dylan and Literature, none of which have hit the mark.

The authors of these articles argue either that Dylan’s poetry is literature, in some broad sense, or that it is not, in some arbitrarily narrower sense. Or, they propose a hybridity that lacks the underpinnings of a genuine understanding of the deeper architectures in play.

What they miss is that not only do oral being and literate being, the worlds of the singer and the writer, not overlap, they are not even contiguous. In fact, they conflict. They war.

Dylan is an oralist and as such he lives and dies by oral values. He is not oblivious to literacy or literature; he is, indeed a master of them. But he is also their enemy. Literature is what Bob Dylan escaped.


For centuries the printed page bound poetry in disembodied tomes; silent, still, solitary, sexless and shelved. Yet the eternal Muses are embodied beings, dancing, sounding and playing, and throughout the long literate ages still they have called to poets to make flesh their dreams and desires.

In America their calls to the absent poetic body were accompanied by the laments of the loas, African all-spirits whose Black bodies were all too present, enchained and enslaved in the new world, native tongues torn out so that the torment of languagelessness was added to the hell of shackled evil, leaving only the exquisite cry of oral anguish that is the blues to scorch the earth’s ears.

And it was to that urgent embodied poetry that the spirited young poets of the American mid-century – horny, hungry,  preternaturally lost in the prosperous post-war wasteland – turned for redemption, for guidance, for meaning. And so Elvis, and the Stones, and the Beatles found themselves playing the blues. As did Bob Dylan. Because nothing was more real, more raw, more soulful, or more fun.

But Dylan also had Woodie Guthrie, who bestowed upon him his hero’s lyre and its enchanted weaponry, and the gaelic songbird Dylan Thomas, heir to Taliesin and the Welsh bards of yore. And the word stores of those mentors were not the supercharged embers of an amputated Afrocentric identity, but the unrestricted word vaults of a world power in full flower. And in the poet Bob Dylan these twin oral streams – the unyielding love that is the holy body of the blues, and the idiomatic English vocabulary of the fearless troubador – blended as in no other.


What do I mean by this? More from Digitopia Blues:

Blues lyrics – as poetically potent and socially subversive as they were – were borrowed from Blacks. They belonged to Black Americans. They were the expression of Black experience. Ultimately, although white American and British kids related to the alienation, the suffering, and the defiance of the blues, these words were not theirs. Borrowing the music made sense because the music was the body, and it was the body that these kids craved. But borrowing the words was a temporary necessity, a stopgap until someone figured out how to integrate the gift of the body with the legacy of a vast, syncretic language of poetry and power.

It was Dylan who unlocked that vault of poetic riches for all. It was he who made clear that there was nothing about which kids could not sing. He unleashed the full vocabulary of the English language on rock ‘n’ roll and cajoled the unchained poetic angel into flight. That is why he matters.

The well-meaning conflation of Dylan’s poetic achievement with literature blinds us to the essential fact that Dylan’s greatest achievement was to liberate poetry from literature, to emancipate the poetic imagination from the tyranny of text.

Over and above the genius of his own poetry, it was Dylan’s unique and pivotal role in uniting the word and the body to release the rock’n’roll poetry of our age that was his true triumph. A poetry powerful enough to have inspired a million bands to seek and find their own poetic truths, and to have filled humanity’s ears with an extraordinary treasure chest of kickass lyrical dreams.

And as far as I’m concerned, for that the well-meaning Swedish dynamite scions can give him any prize they want, be it ever so misplaced.


john sobol




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