Barry McNamara  |   Published October 12, 2016

Don’t think twice, it’s all right

Monmouth College professors weigh in on worthiness of Dylan’s Nobel Prize
  • Bob Dylan is this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Photo credit: “Bob Dylan” by Xavier Badosa via Flickr; CC 2.0)
The times, they are a-changin’.

So wrote Bob Dylan, and so says Monmouth College English professor Mark Willhardt about Dylan being awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

“(It) perhaps says more about our age than either the award or the literature,” said Willhardt, who has been a member of the College’s English faculty since 2000. “Although the committee highlighted his ‘new poetic expressions’ within a particular American tradition, the same could be said for many writers, such as Charles Bukowski or Charles Bernstein. They, too, were outsiders to start and then, in their own ways, became legends as Dylan did, one in the avant garde, one in academia. Instead, it seems to me that the committee was looking for a way to laud tradition without having to laud even mildly traditional – that is, canonical – writers.”

The 75-year-old Dylan is the only singer-songwriter to win the award. Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg called Dylan “probably the greatest living poet.”

“Dylan’s poetry isn’t really new,” said Willhardt’s departmental colleague, David Wright. “He makes brilliant use of traditional forms and populates them with distilled imagery. He brought a modernist’s poetic sensibility to popular lyrics. What I love are the textures of his lyrics, which is why they feel so poetic, often more so than other lyrics do. He does more in a short space than most of us do in a lifetime. And he’s been doing it for a lifetime.”

Although there were many other choices, Willhardt believes the artist who has been called “the voice of a generation” is worthy of the honor.

“His ability to make short stories out of his songs, his ability to write from many perspectives, his ability to remain iconic for 50 years of hard touring – though, admittedly, sometimes spotty output – has given us an oeuvre as varied and important as many other Nobel Prize winners,” Willhardt said. “Certainly, his cultural importance, not just to the American song tradition, is assured. Yet what I think the committee needed was a winner who was as famous as he was good, because awards are increasingly the realm of the in-crowd. Dylan’s choice is refreshing because it acknowledges that good literature can be popular, not just ‘owned’ by the few.”

Willhardt pointed out, however, that not everyone was amused by the committee’s choise, referencing a tweet from Scottish author Irvine Welsh:

“I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Literature was the last of this year’s Nobel prizes to be awarded.
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