US music legend Bob Dylan, whose poetic lyrics have influenced generations of fans, won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, the first songwriter to win the award in a move that stunned prize watchers.
The 75-year-old was honoured “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, the Swedish Academy said.
The choice was met by gasps and a long round of spontaneous applause from journalists attending the prize announcement. The folk rock singer had been mentioned in Nobel speculation over the years, but was never seen as a serious contender.
The Academy's permanent secretary Sara Danius said Dylan's songs were “poetry for the ears”, but acknowledged that some might find Dylan a “strange” choice.
“But if you think back to Homer and Sappho, you realise that was also aural poetry. It was meant to be performed, together with instruments. But we still read them, 2,500-some years later... And in much the same way you can read Bob Dylan too. And you realise that he is great at rhyming, great at putting together refrains, and great at poetic images,” she told AFP.
Embodying both “the intellectual and popular tradition”, he has been influenced by the Delta blues, folk music from the Appalachians and French surrealists like Arthur Rimbaud, she said.
“Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound,” the Academy wrote of the famously private singer.
The Nobel is the latest accolade for a singer who has come a long way from his humble beginnings as Robert Allen Zimmerman, born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, who taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar and piano.
Over the years Dylan has won 11 Grammy awards, as well as one Golden Globe and even an Oscar in 2001, for best original song “Things have Changed” in the movie “Wonder Boys”.
Speculation prior to Thursday's announcement had focused on Syrian poet Adonis and Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
Reactions to the choice of Dylan were mostly positive, though some disapproved.
The Academy has in the past been known to push the limits of the definition of literature, honouring for example Winston Churchill in 1953 for his wartime speeches.
Swedish music journalist Stefan Wermelin compared the choice of Dylan to that of American author John Steinbeck who won the 1962 Nobel.
“At the time there were a lot of people who wrinkled their noses because he was a 'light writer', which of course is not true.... The Academy needs to vary its choices. Sometimes it's someone unknown whom few have read, and sometimes they pick someone who has popular appeal,” he said.
“But this is the first time the prize has gone to a musical form of expression and in that genre Dylan is totally in a class of his own.”
But Per Svensson, culture writer at Swedish regional daily Sydsvenskan, called this year's choice “incredibly depressing” and a “Trumpification” of the prestigious prize to appeal to the masses.
Swedish author Johanna Koljonen noted meanwhile — to misquote Dylan — that the times are changing at the venerable 230-year-old Academy.