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In the Middle of the Road There Was a (Rolling) Stone: Bob Dylan in Brazil

By Eric M. B. Becker

When the Swedish Academy announced Bob Dylan as the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature, the decision was greeted with certain consternation. One pre-announcement prediction even went so far as to emphatically state that Bob Dylan—who was first nominated twenty years ago—would not be the winner.

And then came the shocker: on October 13, Dylan was named the most recent Nobel laureate for literature, the second from my home state of Minnesota. (The first, Sinclair Lewis, who won in 1930, was also the first U.S. writer to earn the distinction. Minnesota is also the only American state to boast two Nobel literature winners.) The reactions were varied, from outright indignation to commemorations that the song was once again being duly recognized as a literary genre.

Anyone who has known me for any length of time is well-acquainted with my appreciation for Dylan. On the eve of the Nobel announcement—with great prescience, I might add—my wife Luisa had decided to put Dylan on our Spotify shortly before going to bed. On account of my Fulbright project to translate Brazilian literature, we’re spending this year in Rio de Janeiro, and for someone who, as Dylan sings, was young when he left home, I tend to throw on a Dylan record once a month in a nod to my home state.

The next morning I was up in our Rio apartment bright and early trying to get the live stream of the Nobel announcement to work on my smartphone. Dylan, though, was the furthest thing from my mind, and when Luisa first screamed out that Bob Dylan had won, I was certain she was kidding. And then came the Reuters story. It appeared it was true.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still conflicted over the announcement (although I’ve no sympathy for those who whine about “so many deserving writers who could have won”). I think there’s an argument to be made against Dylan based on the quality of some of his lyrics, but not on the genre of the song. After all, many groaned at Svetlana Alexievich’s win (both on account of the genre in which she works—journalism—and the quality of the writing). There will always be disagreement about who is a deserving recipient.

But as the pro- and anti-Dylan camps took to social media, another thought occurred to me: surely there’s another important measurement of a writer’s impact, which is his or her influence on other writers. I began to ask writer friends here in Brazil: is it possible to talk about a Dylan influence on contemporary Brazilian literature?

Before long, the answers began streaming in, many of them pointing immediately to Fabrício Corsaletti, a fiction writer and poet from São Paulo with more than ten books to his name (as well as translations of the Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo). Corsaletti, 38, first stumbled upon Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” during a trip through Chile’s Atacama Desert in 2002.

Image: Fabrício Corsaletti. Photographed by Renato Parada.

“Dylan is one of the greatest influences on me as a poet but also me as a person,” Corsaletti explains. His 2010 collection Esquimó (Eskimo), winner of the Prêmio Bravo! Bradesco Prime de Cultura, is populated with all sorts of Dylan characters and references, including Queen Mary from the song “Quinn the Eskimo” that gives the collection its name. And in a variation on a song from the álbum Oh Mercy, Corsaletti composed the poem below, a loose translation of which follows the Portuguese original:

Everything is Broken (2010)

a rua está quebrada
minhas botas
estão quebradas
minha voz
está quebrada
meu pensamento
está quebrado
as portas
estão quebradas
o despertador está quebrado
a noite está quebrada
a manhã
será quebrada—

há uma pessoa no mundo
que não está quebrada
e eu estou ao seu lado
como se não estivesse quebrado—

a alegria
está quebrada
o cansaço
está quebrado
tudo está quebrado

the street is broken
my boots
are broken
my voice
is broken
my thoughts
are broken
the doors
are broken
the alarm clock’s broken
the night is broken
the morning
too will break—

there’s a person in the world
who isn’t broken
and i’m here at her side
as though i weren’t broken—

is broken
is broken
everything is broken

Corsaletti, as you might expect, is a vigorous defender of the decision to award the Nobel to the songwriter:

“Dylan is a great poet. Anyone who’s ever tried to write poetry or has a sensibility for poetry knows as soon as he listens to Dylan’s lyrics that the person who wrote it is a true poet, among the best. When I heard he’d won the Nobel, I joked, ‘I have no doubt Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel. What I don’t know is if the Nobel deserves Bob Dylan.’”

Corsaletti is hardly the only Brazilian poet to acknowledge a debt to Dylan. Leonardo Gandolfi, a poet and literature professor at the Federal University of São Paulo with three collections to his name, recalls first hearing Dylan as a kid in 1980s Rio de Janeiro. Though Gandolfi cites both Dylan and Leonard Cohen as broader influences on his work, a more direct line to the recent Nobel laureate can be located in his found poem “The melody haunts my reverie,” written in English, which carries a line from “One More Cup of Coffee,” a song that appeared on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire.

The melody haunts my reverie

So we’ll go no more a-roving so late into the night, cause your loyalty is not to me but to the stars above. That’s the way it should have begun, but it’s hopeless. Don’t look back, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

Dylan, Gandolfi explains, is one of the poets he carries with him in the same way he carries with him the work of Manuel Bandeira, Fernando Pessoa, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

Image: Leonardo Gandolfi.

“These poets are tied to that moment in our youth when we discover that, in spite of the world, we’re not alone,” Gandolfi says.

In response to those who question the literary value of Dylan’s work, Gandolfi insists that “[a]ny Dylan song is proof that he’s a great poet, some are better than others, in the same way that some of Auden’s poems are better than others.”

In the case of Claufe Rodrigues, a poet who is also one of the presenters of GloboNews Literatura, the influence is less clear in the work itself, though like Dylan, he has set his words to music. 


Todo poema grita   

cada palavra é um pedido de socorro

na gruta infinita da boca

e há um adeus em qualquer sílaba

uma floresta

em festa

queimando dentro de nós.

FOREST (loose translation)

Each poem cries out

each word a cry for help

in the bottomless cave of the mouth

an adieu in each syllable

a forest

in fête

burning within us.

“The great influence [Dylan had on me] wasn’t even in relation to my writing,” Rodrigues says. “My other favorite poets—Whitman, Mayakovsky, Jorge de Lima, Fernando Pessoa—also taught me more about the attitude a poet must have toward his art rather than how to write verse.”

Image: Claufe Rodrigues.

Rodrigues, a longtime resident of Rio de Janeiro born in the state of Pernambuco, in Brazil’s northeast, argues that Dylan’s lyrics can be read alone without losing their firepower and ability to cast a spell over the reader.  “If visual poetry is considered literature, why not some of the greatest song lyrics?” he asks.

Brazilian writer, critic, and essayist Luís Augusto Fischer agrees, while also acknowledging that the great Brazilian modernist writer Mário de Andrade didn’t consider samba one of the high arts because of its commercial appeal, an argument often repeated by Dylan detractors. Beyond a direct influence on Brazilian letters, Fischer makes an argument for songwriting as a separate literary genre, and suggests that those who are comparing Dylan to poets or novelists are missing the point.

“The prize didn’t go to a poet or a memoirist, but to a songwriter,” Fischer wrote in an article for the Porto Alegre-based newspaper Zero Hora. Fischer, co-organizer of the recently released essay collection O alcance da canção, which examines themes from Dylan’s work to the influence of jazz in Cortázar, pioneered a research group at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul focused on studying the song, which he firmly believes to be a literary art. “Does someone who writes for the theater deserve a Nobel? If the answer is yes, then it should also be yes for the songwriter, this other performance artist.”

Image: Luís Augusto Fischer. Photographed by Flávio Dutra.

What’s more, Fischer argues, the Dylan Nobel calls our attention to the development of the arts in general:

“When the first guy went and took a photograph, there was no concern with making art. Photography was a simple technique, with no pretense toward transcendence. But soon enough, artists began wielding cameras [to turn a simple technique into an art]. The same thing happened with genres that are now considered the highest of artistic forms, like the novel. Walter Scott didn’t even put his name on his novels they were considered so vulgar.” 

Published Oct 24, 2016   Copyright 2016 Eric M. B. Becker

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