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If there is poetry in Bob Dylan's work, it’s in his singing

Are lines such as “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, like a bowl of soup” now to be considered as literature?

When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, he promptly de-awarded himself. “It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel laureate,” he said, explaining his decision to reject what many consider the highest honour that a writer can receive.

A year earlier, Bob Dylan had joined James Baldwin and others at the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s Bill of Rights dinner and accepted the Tom Paine Award, in recognition for his services in the fight against Jim Crow America. But he may as well have turned it down. In his speech that night, he mocked the older guests’ baldness and told them that they should “be at the beach... relaxing in the time you have to relax”. People laughed. Then he expressed sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald. Just months had passed since John F Kennedy’s assassination. No one laughed.

But Dylan went home with the award anyway, and has accepted many more since in the half-century that he has been America’s greatest singer-songwriter: Grammies, the Polar Music Prize, an Oscar, the MusiCares Person of the Year Award, among others. Dylan likes awards. Unlike Sartre, he doesn’t worry about becoming an institution, or how it might inhibit his creativity. After his endlessly beguiling minor-key stomper “Things Have Changed” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2001, he started displaying the gold statuette onstage at gigs, seemingly glued on top of an amp.

So, at last, after years of speculation, Dylan has won the Nobel Prize. Some will moan and list other American authors who they think should have got it (Philip Roth among them). Others, such as Irvine Welsh, will condemn the Nobel Committee’s decision as one that was “wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”. Dylan, plagued over the years by facile, ill-informed accusations of plagiarism and lampooned by drunk university students on karaoke nights since the invention of karaoke, has now entered the literary canon. But what does this mean for Dylan and, moreover, the literary canon itself? Are lines such as “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, like a bowl of soup” now to be considered as poetry?

Dylan’s “high art” defenders will counter these pretty bogus questions with examples of his best work: “Visions of Johanna” (“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face...”), “Shelter from the Storm” (“I offered up my innocence, I got repaid with scorn...”), “Not Dark Yet” (“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain...”), his astonishing memoir Chronicles. They will claim, as Andrew Motion has done, that his lyrics “work as poems”.

Yet I think this would be to undermine Dylan and his craft as a musician. As he once said himself, he is above all else a “song and dance man”. He dabbled in poetry and bashed out a sort of novel in the late Sixties called Tarantula, which was fun but only gestured towards what he could do onstage or in a recording studio. That wasn’t enough for him and, even as a fan, those experiments aren’t enough for me. I suspect that many of those who fixate on his words scour his songs as texts, looking for poetry in conventional terms at the expense of the performance. (I won’t name names, but you know who you are.) I wonder whether they hear the music at all, and the voice at the centre of it. The irony is that what poetry exists on Dylan’s records is largely to be found in the sound of the words, not their meaning. Music – no, Dylan’s version of music – alchemises those lyrics into great art. He’s a great singer. His genius is in that sand and glue.

Not long ago, while receiving another award, Dylan spoke of how the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, would swat away praise for the beauty of his singing by reminding listeners that voices “ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Cooke had a point. When I hear him sing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, I believe for those three minutes that everybody loves to cha cha cha, and that I love to cha cha cha, too.

It’s a confidence trick, like so much art, and our bodies are fooled before our minds. Just as a skilled magician’s sleight of hand conditions his audience to accept the apparition of a rabbit out of an empty hat, a great vocalist can pull profound meaning out of thin air – or, at least, out of a bunch of rhyming words. Inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen said that where “Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind”. But Bob freed both, and Springsteen knew this. His speech at the ceremony was a testimony as much to the power of Dylan’s singing as it was to his contributions to the song lyric. Listening to “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time in 1965, he thought Dylan’s was “the toughest voice I had ever heard... It reached down and touched what little worldliness a 15-year-old kid in New Jersey had in him.”

Half a century on, that toughness remains undiminished (go listen to the blistering 2012 murder ballad “Tin Angel” if you don’t believe me). Yet Dylan has always had the power to move as well as frighten you. The actor and playwright Sam Shepard wrote in 1977 of watching him perform a cover version of Johnny Ace’s blues ballad “Never Let Me Go” in a duet with Joan Baez, marvelling at the song’s “bone-shattering simplicity”. He printed a sample of its lyrics:

Just let me love you tonight.

Forget about tomorrow.

No tears, no sorrow.

Never let me go.

“No word is wasted,” Shepard pointed out, but just look at those words. Each line is a cliché, and no less effective for it. What makes the experience of listening to Bob and Joan sing that song so moving is largely their delivery of it. You believe them. “When a man can rhyme ‘kelp’ with ‘help’ and cause your heart to lurch – that’s poetry,” wrote Shepard. It would have been as true to say, “When a man can sing ‘kelp’ and ‘help’...”

All of this is not to downplay Dylan’s brilliance as a lyricist. No one else can collage together fragments of our shared culture into such unapologetically rambunctious rockers as “Obviously 5 Believers” or heartbreakers like “Red River Shore”, which for my money is the best thing he has ever done. Though the latter is a perfect song, however, it doesn’t quite work on the printed page. It is not a poem, no matter how poetic its imagery, no matter how skilful the rhymes. Andrew Motion told the BBC that Dylan’s lyrics are “often the best words in the best order”, but starting 11 of a poem’s 16 verses with “well” just to fill up gaps in the scansion would not do, whereas it doesn’t really matter in a song.

So I prefer to see the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its prize in literature to Bob Dylan as less a confirmation that his lyrics somehow “count” as poetry, than that song itself is a part of what we understand by “literature”. And this should be an obvious thing to confirm – after all, Homer didn’t recite the Odyssey. He sang it. In effect, literature has come home.

Yo Zushi’s latest album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is out now on Eidola Records 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.