This was, of course, a category error. Literature is defined as written works, composed of letters on pages, usually grouped together into books.
Bob Dylan only composed two literary works in his life:
Tarantula - a short book of prose poetry, published illegally by an underground press in 1966, bootlegged extensively and then released officially in 1971 - received almost uniformly condemnatory reviews, and is still cited as a classic example of how the "poetry" of the song lyric mode fails to transfer to the printed page.
Chronicles: Volume One - published in 2004 as the first part of a planned three-volume memoir - got a much better reception. But I think it's fair to say that Dylan didn't get the Nobel Prize for that.
So, Dylan won the Prize for his song lyrics, or more precisely, his songs. In fairness, the Nobel Committee along with many others no doubt consider them to be poetry - sung poetry, but poetry nevertheless.
But that doesn't make Blonde on Blonde literature.
And in truth, as music critic Robert Christgau wrote in a review of Tarantula published forty-five years ago in The New York Times, song-writing isn't poetry, and Dylan, for all his pretensions, is no poet.
Christgau called him a poetaster.
But he would also write: "To assert that Dylan doesn't belong to the history of literature is not to dismiss him from the history of artistic communication, of language." Exactly so. Whatever you think of Dylan's politics, or the people and movements associated with him, or his somewhat eccentric later creative life, he was a fine musician. I can only second the critic's final recommendation: Buy his records.
The answer, my friends, is still blowin' in the wind
By Robert Christgau June 27, 1971
The official appearance of Bob Dylan's “Tarantula” is not a literary event because Dylan is not a literary figure. Literature comes in books, and Dylan does not intend his most important work to be read. If he ever did, his withdrawal of “Tarantula” from publication five years ago indicates that he changed his mind. Of course, it's possible that he's changed his mind again—with Dylan, you never know. Most likely, however, his well‐known quest for privacy, his personal elusiveness, lies behind the unexpected availability of this book. The pursuit of the artist by his audience has been a pervasive theme of his career, and the bootleg versions of “Tarantula” hawked on the street and under the counter over the past few years by self‐appointed Dylanologists and hip rip‐off artists were simply a variation on that theme. For Dylan to permit the release of the book now (at a non‐rip‐off price, it should be noted) is to acknowledge the loss of a battle in his never‐ending war for privacy. Quite simply, his hand has been forced by his fans. He is a book‐writer now, like it or not.
To assert that Dylan doesn't belong to the history of literature is not to dismiss him from the history of artistic communication, of language. Quite the contrary. A song writer does not use language as a poet or novelist does because he chooses his words to fit into some larger, more sensual effect; an artist who elects to work in a mass medium communicates in a different way from one who doesn't and must be judged according to his own means, purposes and referents. That much ought to be obvious. I would also argue, however, that Dylan's choices not only merit their own critical canons but must be recognized as incisive responses to modernism's cul‐de‐sac, in which all the arts, especially literature, suffer from self‐perpetuating intellectual élitism.
What makes this all so confusing is that Dylan's fame and influence are based on his literary talents and pretensions. Just for fun, I might suggest that Dylan is no greater an artist than Chuck Berry or Hank Williams, but only Dylan could have become the culture hero of a decade of matriculating college classes. Even at first, when Dylan's best songs were mostly acute folk music genre pieces, he was thought to embody transcendent artistic virtues. The standard example was “Blowin' in the Wind,” which interspersed straightforward political questions with metaphorical ones, always concluding: “The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is Blowin' in the wind.” The song's “poetic” language, effective in its musical and emotive context even though it appears hackneyed on the page, captured listeners sympathetic to its apparent assumptions and inspired much unfortunate image‐mongering. But in retrospect we notice the ambivalence of the title—can the answer be plucked from the air?
Dylan may not have been aware he was equivocating when he wrote the song, but that doesn't matter. Equivocation was inherent in his choice of method. Like most of his confreres in the folk movement, Dylan got his world‐view from the listless civil‐rights and ban‐the‐bomb radicalism of the late 50's but was forced to find his heroes elsewhere, among the avant‐garde artists who helped young post‐conformists define for themselves their separation from their fellow citizens. Once Dylan conceived the ambition to use those artists as his own exemplars, he had to come to terms with their characteristic perspective—namely, irony. Sure enough, in “My Back Pages” (1964) he was renouncing politics with a nice ironic flourish—“I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.” Moreover, the same song signalled his debut as a poetaster with a portentously clumsy opening line: “Crimson flames tied through my ears, growing high and mighty traps.”
Between early 1964 and mid‐1966—a period that includes the four albums from “Another Side of Bob Dylan” to “Blonde on Blonde” and the switch from acoustic to electric music—Dylan became a superstar. Pioneers of youth bohemia seized upon his grotesque, sardonic descriptions of America as experienced by a native alien and elevated Dylan into their poet laureate. In response, professional defenders of poetry declared themselves appalled by his barbaric verbosity. Many of us, his admirers, even while we were astonished, enlightened and amused by Dylan's sporadic eloquence, knew why John Ciardi wasn't. But we didn't care, not just because Dylan's songs existed in an aural and cultural context that escaped the Ciardis, but because we sensed that the awkwardness and overstatement that marred his verse were appropriate to a populist medium. No one was explicit about this at the time, however, least of all Dylan, whose ambitions were literary as well as musical and whose relationship to his ever‐expanding audience was qualified by the fascination with an arcane élite to which his songs testified.
“Tarantula” is a product of this period; in fact, Dylan fans who want a precise sense of what the book is about need only refer to the liner notes of “Highway 61 Revisited.” The basic technique is right there: the vague story, peopled with historical (Paul Sargent), fabulous or pseudonymous (the Cream Judge, Savage Rose) characters, punctuated with dots and dashes and seasoned with striking but enigmatic asides, all capped off with a fictitious letter having no obvious connection to what has preceded. That's all folks.
“Tarantula” is a concatenation of such pieces. Most of them seem unconnected, although a few characters, notably someone named “aretha,” do recur. The only literary precedent that comes to mind is “Naked Lunch,” but in a more general way “Tarantula” is reminiscent of a lot of literature because it takes an effort to read it. Unless you happen to believe in Dylan, I question whether it's worth the effort, and don't call me a philistine—it was Bob Dylan who got me asking such questions in the first place.
For the strangest aspect of Dylan's middle period is that although it was unquestionably his literary pretensions that fanaticized his admirers and transformed the craft (or art) of songwriting, Dylan's relationship to literature as a discipline was always ambivalent. In fact, to call it ambivalent is to compound the confusion—it was actually downright hostile. From “Tarantula”: “wally replies that he is on his way down a pole & asks the man if he sees any relationship between doris day & tarzan? the man says ‘no, but i have some james baldwin and hemingway books’ ‘not good enough’ says wally.” From the notes to “Bringing It All Back Home”: “my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion.”
Dylan borrowed techniques from literature—most prominently allusion, ambiguity, symbolism and fantasy—and he obviously loved language, but he despised the gentility with which it was supposed to be tailored. His songs do seem derivative, but (like “Tarantula”) they aren't derived from anyone in particular. Obvious parallels, or “influences”—Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Céline—share only his approach and identity: the Great Vulgarian, the Magnificent Phonus Balonus. Dylan wrote like a word‐drunk undergraduate who had berserked himself into genius, his only tradition the jumbled culture of the war baby—from Da Vinci to comic strips, from T. S. Eliot to Charlie Rich. His famous surrealism owes as much to Chuck Berry as to Breton or even Corso, and even though his imagery broadened the horizons of songwrit ing, it was only a background for the endless stream of epigrams—which songwriters call good lines—flowing into our language, some already clichés (“The times they are a‐changin,” “You know something's happening, but you don't know what it is”), others still the property of an extensive, self informed subculture (“Stuck in side of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” “Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters”). Dylan may be a poor poet, but he is a first‐class wit.
But such talk accedes to the temptation of placing Dylan's work in a page context, always a mistake. Literature may have engendered the Dylan mystique, but rock and roll nurtured it. We remember those lines because we've heard them over and over again, often not really listening, but absorbing the rhythm of unpoetic distortion just the same. “Tarantula” may contain similar gems, but we'll never know they're there, because Tarantula will never be an album. The wonderful letters, the funny bits, as well as the dreary, vaguely interesting stuff and the failed doomsday rhetoric—all will go. Aretha Franklin's continuing presence through the book is a portent, for shortly after “Tarantula” and “Blonde on Blonde” Dylan made another switch by abandoning the verbal play (and excess) of his long songs for brief, specifically pop works. For a while, it appeared that this meant a total abandonment of the complexity of his vision, but his latest album, “New Morning,” makes clear that it is only a condensation. More and more, Dylan affirms the value of the popular and the sensual over the verbal. This book will find its way into A. J. Weberman's Dylan concordance and doubtless become a cult item, but it is a throwback. Buy his records.