Harvard professor Richard Thomas is a serious fellow. He can talk all day about Hellenistic Greek poetry and Roman poetry, particularly of the Republican and Augustan periods. But he can also talk a lot about Bob Dylan, who won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature Thursday.
“I’m very, very happy,” said Thomas, who ranks Dylan right up there with Virgil and Horace.
As it happens, we reached the New Zealand-bred PhD as he was on his way to the freshman seminar devoted to Dylan that he teaches every four years. He planned to celebrate the Nobel news with cupcakes for his students, some of whom are also Dylanologists.
“It’s not just people with gray ponytails who follow him,” Thomas said.
The reaction to the award for the 75-year-old singer was mixed, with some arguing that, as evocative as Dylan’s lyrics can be, they’re not literature. Some pointed out that plenty of talented writers — novelists, poets, playwrights — haven’t so much as sniffed a Nobel.
“Philip Roth just bought an acoustic guitar,” author Tom Perrotta wrote on Facebook.
To those who think Dylan is undeserving of the prize, Thomas says this: “Screw them.”
The Harvard professor said the popular view of Dylan as an American protest singer is outdated rubbish, and he concurs with the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, who hailed Dylan on Thursday as “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” whose work compares to that of ancient Greek poets.
“Absolutely,” said Thomas, who argued the case for Dylan in a heavily footnoted piece, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan,” published in the scholarly journal, Oral Tradition.
Thomas said he heard Dylan for the first time when he was a teenager and has paid close attention ever since.
“I realized he was behaving, he was writing, like the classical poets I studied, very layered with a lot of allusions to other songs and poems and novels,” said Thomas. “When he sings, it all comes to life. I see him very much like the ancient poets I study.”
Kevin Barents agrees. A poet, Barents teaches a course at Boston University called “Bob Dylan’s Lyrics.” He says any suggestion that the Nobel committee doesn’t know what they’re doing is just stupid.
“There isn’t a lot of ambiguity or subtlety in much of popular music, but Dylan created work that rewards attention, where multiple meanings can coexist,” said Barents. “You can’t do that with ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ ”
Perhaps the world’s foremost Dylanologist is also in Boston. But BU professor Christopher Ricks, author of “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” was so indundated with interview requests Thursday that he opted to issue a statement, which read in part: “I’d not have written a book about Dylan, to stand alongside books on Milton and Keats, Tennyson and T.S. Eliot, if I didn’t think Dylan a genius of and with language.”
Just as Thomas was about to walk into his freshman seminar Thursday afternoon, we asked him to name his three favorite Dylan albums. He named seven instead: “Blonde on Blonde,” “John Wesley Harding,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “Modern Times,” “Tempest,” “Time Out of Mind,” and “Love and Theft.”
Thomas said he was surprised Dylan received the Nobel Prize, but gratified.
“It’s good to get confirmation of something you’ve known for a long time,” he said.