Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, October 14, 2016

Touchstones and the Nobel kerfuffle

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 Atlantic
A 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:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

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.


  1. Dylan's plain lyrics are founded upon the Anglo American folk song tradition, and surely look feeble next to Yeats and Wilbur. So I thought, "What other poets have won Nobels, poets whose style is quite plain?" I thought at once of Neruda, and went off to look at his poems again, and the first one I came across was "A Dog Has Died" and when I came to

    No, my dog used to gaze at me,
    paying me the attention I need,
    the attention required
    to make a vain person like me understand
    that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
    but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
    he'd keep on gazing at me
    with a look that reserved for me alone
    all his sweet and shaggy life,
    always near me, never troubling me,
    and asking nothing

    I thought, "Wow, what a great poem this is!" and I stopped thinking about Dylan.

    1. Oh, you're right, Neruda would make a good comparison. So we could send undecided readers off to read Dylan's lyrics and Neruda's poems....

    2. p. s. Just remembered this from an essay by Gary Saul Morson, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University: Bakhtin praised great works that take us out of a “Ptolemaic universe” into a “Galilean” one, that take us from a world in which our perspective is the center of all things — like the earth in the ancient Ptolemaic model of the solar system — into a world in which our perspective is just one of many possibilities — like one planet among others orbiting the sun. The value one is likely to place on great literature depends on whether one thinks it is moral or immoral to escape the prison of one’s own social group in one’s own culture at a given moment in time. The more a culture wants to protect its citizens from potentially harmful viewpoints, the more it will de-literize the literary.

    3. I have read either that Morson essay or quotes from it, because it sounds very familiar. I can understand a lot of Americans arguing in favor of Dylan's award, for a variety of reasons including the privileging of self-absorbed American culture. I'm not sure what the Swedes are doing, though. But the history of the Prize is in many ways the history of arguing about the very meaning of the Prize, a meaning that has always been in dispute. Anyway, at least people are talking (even if only for a few days) about poetry in the mainstream media. Who could've predicted that?

    4. Yes, that's a surprising and good thing...

  2. I am one of those (seemingly) rare people. I cannot place Bob Dylan's lyrics. I rarely hear song lyrics... just the music.
    The lyrics you quote here are therefore new to me.
    These are great lyrics.
    This is not to say that Dylan cannot write poetry, or that he is not a poet, but that his lyrics require more than the words alone offer. They require music and rhythm and key-changes, etc. Those things are usually part of the fabric of a poem, and not a coat that a poem wears.
    I am just noticing that most people are aware of his lyrics only.
    Perhaps he won this prize for his poetry, instead?
    Who knows?

    1. According to the committee, it's for the written record only. And I don't think that means "Tarantula." I think it means the lyrics.

      You, as a composer, find them lyrics that still need music and rhythm and key changes.... Interesting.

  3. I blame it, half-seriously, on the New Criticism, at least in the debased form that made it to the lesser universities. There, as I saw it, it encouraged the application of a pound of analysis to an ounce of reading. Some of those who did not pay sufficient attention ended up as critics of popular culture, applying tools developed for the understanding of Dante or Donne to the lyrics of Dylan and Baez.

    I understand the urge to go back beyond the division of labor. Yet there is a lot to be said for words by Da Ponte written for music by Mozart, sung by those with strong trained voices. Or, from the other way around, an excellent poem set later by a good composer, then well sung: I don't know enough German to say how good the poems are in Winterreise, but one doesn't have to look far to find art songs written for good poems. And I see no reason to suppose that the aoidos of the Homeric age made up the words or melodies he sang.

    1. That's curious--I never thought of blaming the New Critics for such trends. I suppose that I was too busy blaming Marxist theory for turning literature into something else entirely, or French theorists for giving us a world in which authors know nothing about what they are doing, and so making the critic more important than the author. That's a terrible over-simplification, but when literature is no longer literature and authors are no longer authors, well, critics and readers can hail written words for other reasons than their standing as literature. But perhaps you are right, and it goes all the way back to Warren and Brooks and company. I shall have to think about that!

      I can certainly be caught singing a Yeats poem or two around the house....

    2. More than sixty years ago, Randall Jarrell published the book Poetry and the Age, which included the essay "The Age of Criticism", objecting to the academy's and the publishing world's preference for criticism over new literature. A great deal of academia is most comfortable with literature when it can turn it into something else: in the 19th Century philology seemed to be the popular choice, in the 20th sociology had a good run. The New Critics could I suppose lose important aspects of the work, but they did seem to prize literature for itself.

      As far as I know, "Down by the Salley Gardens" is the only poem by Yeats that I have ever heard sung. "Two Songs from a Play" might almost be my favorite among his poems if I had to make a choice: yet I don't know whether they were sung in a play, nor if so in what play, and to whose music. Evidently there remains a role for historical criticism.


    3. Jarrell must have been the first critic I ever read because I liked his kids' books (I knew his collaborations with Sendak) and poetry in high school. My mother gave me his "Collected Poems" when it appeared. So I think I first read the essays in high school. I spent every school afternoon wandering the university library where my mother worked....

      I just deleted a great big long list because I thought to look at the Yeats Society page, and sure enough, they have a longer list of people who have written music for and/or sung Yeats poems, from Elgar to Mike Scott and the Waterboys. They're not in logical order, so I'm not sure if it's complete. I didn't see Christine Tobin, so maybe not--or maybe I just didn't skim well enough. Take a look here: Yeats discography.

  4. I am with you. I cannot read Dylan's words without hearing the music. I cannot think of his lyrics as poetry in the same way as Wilbur's or Neruda's or Yeats' words are poetry. They are just not the same thing.
    This is not to say that I do not love Dylan's songs, many of them, just that given the very very small place allotted on the world stage to poetry, Dylan's work does not belong there, among this company. Give poetry the inch it has been given and create a new category for songs and performance.

    1. It's too bad they did not accept the money for a music category when it was offered.

      What does it say that poets of Wilbur's stature (well, there can't be many, worldwide) are passed over in favor of not Dylan's life work but simply the written portion pulled away from the whole? I expect it says a great deal about the committee, its attitudes, its values, its attitude toward the U. S., etc. It's interesting. I don't pretend to know enough to analyze their thinking, but it would be curious to know.

      It is good--unusual--that people are talking about poetry.

      I also find it interesting that rhyme got a reward. Not formal poetry, but still...

  5. RE: criticism, there is nothing wrong with applying the tool of analysis to anything at all, but that doesn't mean that anything at all is on the same level as art, just that the tool of analysis is a versatile sort of thing and all of these things are works of the human brain.

  6. There's been a lot of talk in the past day or two about who does or does not "deserve" a Nobel Prize. I found clarity in breaking the question down into a less lofty question: Who deserves money and accolades from a bunch of Swedes whose motives are inscrutable to all but themselves? What I ended up concluding is that I wished the money and accolades had gone to someone who hadn't gotten enough of either and dearly needed both. (I mean, what else are we going to give Bob Dylan: the Fields Medal? A Fulbright? Home Depot's Most-Improved Midwestern Faucet Salesman of the Year Trophy?)

    As a medievalist, I can make all the too-clever-by-half arguments about the musical roots of poetry, but so what? It's obvious to me that Dylan's lyrics need musical accompaniment to breathe and live. In the 21st century, we make a distinction between lyrics and poetry, and the Swedish Academy seems poorly equipped to argue the contrary.

    1. I love, "Who deserves money and accolades from a bunch of Swedes whose motives are inscrutable to all but themselves?"

      Yes, I've seen people touting the troubadours, etc.

  7. The usual outrage and/or agreement from round the world, most people conveniently forgetting that this was a Swedish decision and why should 9,886,099 Swedes (a quarter of the population of California) bow to what others think.

    They've borne the sneers in past times ("I mean - Galsworthy! What were they thinking of?") from those who seem to believe that Sweden should be able to put an absolute value on literary worth that will stick for ever. For goodness sake, it's not only a transient judgment it's entirely subjective. And in this case it relates to a field of human endeavour where obscurity is one of the acceptable strands.

    Mind you, the Swedes (I should declare an interest - I love Sweden) are partly to blame. All those men in soup and fish, strangling in their stiff collars - the quintessence of solemnity. I wish, oh I wish, it had been Johnny Rotten instead of Dylan and that the invitations had read: "Dress: torn tee-shirts. Attendance at subsequent orgy depends on age"

    1. Thanks for being so amusing! I feel very lucky to not be the sort of person who feels outrage over awards (Swede-powered or not) and must take a passionate stand of "yes" or "no.". I must admit that I've felt a certain amusement at many of the voiced passions.

      Having been on a very well-run national judging panel, I know that it is possible to have a group of people be congenial and thoughtful and determined to make the very best choices possible. However, having heard many entertaining anecdotes about past panels, I know that it may be more common for judging panels to involve shouts and tears and people who cannot come to terms.

  8. Someone shared this with me today... It's a sweet and funny anecdote about Dylan via Mark Steyn:

    Visiting America a few years ago, Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics, said to Dylan that the next time he was in England he should drop by his recording studio in Crouch End, an undistinguished north London suburb. Dylan, at a loose end one afternoon, decided to take him up on it and asked a taxi-driver to take him to Crouch End Hill. Cruising the bewildering array of near-namesake streets - Crouch End Hill, Crouch End Road, Crouch Hill End, Crouch Hill Road and various other permutations of "Crouch," "End" and "Hill" - the cabbie accidentally dropped him off at the right number but in an adjoining street of small row houses. Dylan knocked at the front door and asked the woman who answered if Dave was in.

    "No," she said, assuming he was referring to her husband, Dave, who was out on a plumbing job. "But he should be back soon." Bob asked if she would mind if he waited. Twenty minutes later, Dave - the plumber, not the rock star - returned and asked the missus whether there were any messages. "No," she said, "but Bob Dylan's in the front room having a cup of tea."

  9. All the discussion of Dylan's merits as poet/singer are trumped (sorry 'bout that word!) and made irrelevant by the long laundry list of problem with the Nobel prize selections over the years; politics trumps merit (yep, there's that word again). Does anyone really take seriously the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Booker prizes and so many of its ilk (such a beautiful three-letter word)?

    1. Visibility, for a writer, is key. Invisibility is a cloak that wraps some very good writers. Awards are a way of being visible, more or less. Sometimes they really bump up a book or a writer, sometimes they don't do so much. (Dylan, of course, had no need of visibility, as he is beloved worldwide. Though I suppose you could say that the award made some people look at the lyrics as separate from the songs.)

  10. It's funny: I like Dylan, especially when he's doing whatever the heck he wants to do in blatant defiance of trends, but in recent years I've been irked by the rise of what I can only call Dylanolatry, this weird, quasi-deification that presents him as some sort of inscrutable super-being. (Case in point: the movie about him where it took six different actors to portray his public personas. Puh-leez.) So I was heartened tonight when my iPod served up one of the best early parodies of Dylanesque folk rock: "A Simple Desultory Phillipic (or, How I was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission" by Simon and Garfunkel, which includes the line: "He's so unhip, that when you say 'Dylan,' he thinks you're talkin' about Dylan Thomas...whoever he was. The man ain't got no cultcha! But it's all right, ma, everybody must get stoned!"

    1. "Andy Warhol, won't you please come home?" Or was it, "Andy Warhol, won't you please phone home" with shades of E. T.? Or maybe E. T. in shades....

      I'm not into -olatry either. However, I do wish some of our other celebrity idols would be a bit more inscrutable, or at least not talk quite so much.... XD

    2. That's a good point! And I love that Dylan hasn't yet returned the Nobel Committee's phone calls.

    3. Well, if you answer them, you are no longer inscrutable!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.