|Muse reading a scroll by an open chest.|
Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. From Boeotia.
Musée du Louvre. Public domain, Wikipedia.
Bob Dylan . . . can be read and should be read [italics mine], and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition. --Sara Danius, Nobel Permanent Secretary
There’s little that’s inherently controversial about praising words originally meant for vocal delivery. Playwrights have won the Nobel Prize for Literature before. But in an era when songwriting and song performance and song recording are tied together, when many musicians’ literary voices are first received via their literal voices, lyrics alone should inevitably have a hard time competing with “pure” poetry or prose. --Spencer Kornhaber (what a name!) at The AtlanticA great many of my friends and acquaintances have been busy proving that Dylan either deserves or does not deserve the Nobel, given for the written portion of his work considered as literature. A great many famous people have done likewise.
Being a peaceable sort, I leave them to the joy of it.
But I'm pleased that people are talking about poetry.... What has interested me about this whole episode is the common lack of any sort of clarity about what poetry is, or what high achievement in poetry might look like. Instead, most people are carried away by a tsunami of love for Dylan, or by their anger at the debasement of literature--the latter group assumes that we all know what literature is, though I haven't seen any defining examples or analysis.
The problem with the award is that is given only for the written part of a singer-songwriter's work. But it's hard for us to look at just the words. The songs keep getting in the way, don't they?
I suggest a simple comparison based on some touchstone work by Dylan and a poet, a this versus that to let us consider and meditate on what it means to: a.) hold up lyrics to a song as written literature and b.) to hold up a poem meant to stand alone as written literature to be read silently or aloud.
Here are written lyrics to a Dylan song--do your best to not hear the music in your head. (Well, I can't do it, and I doubt very much that the Nobel committee could either!) Again, remember that the award is for the written words only. If you're my age--well, if you grew up in the Western world--you probably grew up with Dylan songs running through your head, so it's quite a challenge to look just at the words.
I will let Rolling Stone pick the song. Here's the no. 1 on their countdown list, 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs.
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People call say 'beware doll, you're bound to fall'
You thought they were all kidding you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone
Ahh you've gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
The first fourteen lines of "Like a Rolling Stone" give you a taste, but maybe you'd better read the whole thing here. Copyright, copyright! I don't want to get in trouble with something quite so powerful as the Dylan enterprises.
And next to that, we should put a poem not set to music, one that aspires to literature. To lean over backwards and be generous yet parallel, I'll pick one by a living American poet who aspires to literature (but who was, of course, just passed over for the Nobel.) After all, Dylan hadn't won the Nobel until yesterday.
Like Dylan's lyrics, this poem is also under copyright protection, so I'll just give a 14-line excerpt and a link to the remainder. Here goes:
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
Read the rest of Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" at The Poetry Foundation, here.
But perhaps it is more appropriate to look at a poem by someone who has won a Nobel prize for literature. Try these fourteen lines:
Read the rest of "The Second Coming" by Yeats here. (Even if you've departed on a bandwagon already, Yeats is always worth a look. And, indeed, a second look.)
And now, after some meditation on words alone, perhaps it would be appropriate to have an opinion....
Postscript: A. M. Juster says, "Dylan’s Nobel honors his words for their musicality, accessibility, and ideas. His recognition may help to drag scholars, MFA programs, and literary journals away from their postmodernist tedium and toward a welcome revival of poetry that provokes and delights the public. For that reason alone, as others flame about Dylan’s Nobel don’t think twice – it’s alright." Read the rest here.