Hello Gentle Reader
I’ve made no qualm about my revulsion of the news that Bob Dylan became this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature; for reasons already identified. Since the announcement, it is fair to state my perspective has not changed on Bob Dylan’s Nobel nod; there still breathes deep within me a sense of abhorrent and arbitrary resentment that Bob Dylan would be honored with the highest literary award in Literature, despite not being a writer – at least not in the traditional sense, as he is being touted and paraded as a poet of the highest pedigree, and a top rate lyricist and songwriter. These claims maybe true; but only in the most partial sense. Bob Dylan very well may be a talented wordsmith when crafting and conducting songs, for him to sing; but he is by no means a poet. Bob Dylan is first and foremost a musician and a singer. He is noted for his albums: “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Blonde on Blonde.” Yet these works are now being inappropriately reclassified beyond their own place in the canon of integrity and artistic achievement. “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Blonde on Blonde,” are albums – in other words they are musical achievements of: song, instrumentation, and lyrics; they belong in the category of music; a very extroverted form of artistic expression, which is often more able to gather populist appeal by its inclusive nature. Music and songs can be shared openly and loudly. Most to all of us have memories of sharing music and songs with friends in their youth, in dim lit rooms filled with smoke and alcohol in large supply, sharing the songs which spoke to them of the time. Even now, my neighbour chooses to spend some nights with a few friends and play music at exaggerated levels, while smoking copious amounts of weed, with his cohorts. Such is the pleasure of music and songs; the reveling and the celebratory experience in how they can be shared: in either a public space or a private environment amongst friends. Music and songs bring people together, in a sense of equal appreciation, deprived of the troubles of the mundane world. Music, song and dance – these are public affairs and displays of goodwill, revelry, and calls for celebration. Books: short stories, novels, poetry – these are private love affairs. Literature such as novels, poetry, and short stories, cannot be shared so openly as music. There is no group of people, sitting in a smoke filled room, drinking alcohol reading silently amongst themselves. Reading does not equate the festivities of a party. Reading is a silent and solitary act, which inadvertently alienates its participants from others. Books mind you, can be shared and returned, but the joy itself is strictly limited to the individual and their subjective immersion into its subject matter. Books cannot engross the public or the mass populace, in the same way music or a song can.
The conception of both song and music is most likely very similar to that of literature’s conception. Both are conceived in silence and solitude; with pen to paper the first scribbles of ink are to be administered, while in those first scribbles, are the beginning formations of a song or a piece of prose or poetry. Yet, following this, the two begin to go their separate ways. Once the novel or the poem has stalled in its first draft conception, the writer may fight with the words in their intangible space before calling it a day. The musician/singer is gifted with an instrument to assist even further in their work be it: guitar, drum, piano or harmonica. By strumming the guitar, beating the drum, striking a key or blowing the harmonica; the musician is able to further gain ground with their planned song. While the writer is forced to move on with life: laundry needs to be folded; dishes need to be done; and dinner needs to be cooked. Though how they are conceived initially is similar; music and literature do divorce down the way.
The debate about music and literature has been a paramount discussion with this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Their similarities being recognized and praised as a great achievement, as people begin to believe they are not as inseparable as originally thought; while their differences are poignantly defined with greater clarity, in hopes to maintain and retain the clear border between the two. Be it one was a revolutionary in their thought process, and looks forward to a uncomfortable marriage between literature and music; or one is strictly purist in their perspective of the divorce of the two; this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was divisive. On one hand, there was the populist cheers of the masses as their poet had won; a relic of the sixties and the counterculture; while on the other was the literary purists (including myself) who jeered the recognition of someone who was neither a writer, nor a man of literary letters. On Bob Dylan’s Nobel success, there was no room for middle ground of neutrality. It was either seen as a revolutionary success of the Swedish Academy to look beyond the dusty books of libraries, in order to step out of the box and award a complete outsider. Or, it was the complete destruction of the establishment, the stain on both the Nobel’s history, present and future, as a complete outsider, of unworthy merit had walked away with the most prestigious literary award. Despite praise and criticism the damage is done, and Bob Dylan accepted the award, and would now be considered officially a Nobel Laureate.
Throughout the Nobel controversy, Bob Dylan did not always help himself either. He refused to return calls to the Swedish Academy, or even acknowledge his Nobel accolade. This would prompt a member of the Swedish Academy to claim Bob Dylan’s stoic and silent response as “arrogant and rude.” While some celebrated Bob Dylan, and other remained indifferent; while others secretly cursed his fortune and luck over many other writers; Dylan was unreachable and silent; until two-weeks after the award was announced, Bob Dylan returned Sara Danius’s call. He admitted the news of receiving the Nobel Prize, had left him speechless, but he thoroughly appreciated the honour; while also mentioning that he will attend the Nobel ceremony ‘if possible;’ It would later be confirmed that Bob Dylan would not be able to attend the ceremony.
The Nobel controversy would die down. The flames had lost their potency; the coals now smoldering would burn out. Life must commence as usual; there is laundry to be folded, dishes to be done, and dinners to cook. Then the big day of December 10th came around, and the years Laureates would soon gather in the Blue Hall in Stockholm City Hall, where they would be presented with their Nobel medal and their Nobel diploma’s; the crowning achievement of their careers.
Generally speaking, December 10th and the first week of October, usually have me in high spirits and a good mood. Though this year, I was in a good mood leading up to December 10th, it was later pissed on by reasons which shall remain unnamed and unspoken, other than: work has a surprising ability to turn all bright moods into a sour state of the soul.
The Nobel Ceremony however, continued on as usual. The laureates for Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature and Economics; Peace would take place in Oslo, Norway; would each be honored with their medal and diploma, handed to them by the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf; but before that a speech would be read by one of the committee members of the corresponding prize. This year’s speech giver for the Nobel Prize for Literature, from the Swedish Academy was none other than: Horace Engdahl.
The Award Ceremony Speech by Horace Engdahl opens with guns a blazing, in which subtlety this year’s decision has been defended, because its practitioner has mutated the form away from its vernacular roots, and brought to the greater heights of more serious literature. Engdahl mentions La Fontaine and Hans Christian Andersen as two writers in particular in the past who were able to bring their chosen subject matter out from their squandered ghetto and rise them up to the: “Parnassian heights,” of great literature. With pleasantries observed and niceties completed, Horace Engdahl gets to the point with his second paragraph, in which praises this year’s laureate, and understates the radical aspect of the decision:
“In itself, it ought not to be a sensation that a singer/songwriter now stands recipient of the literary Nobel Prize. In a distant past, all poetry was sung or tunefully recited, poets were rhapsodes, bards, troubadours; 'lyrics' comes from 'lyre'. But what Bob Dylan did was not to return to the Greeks or the Provençals. Instead, he dedicated himself body and soul to 20th century American popular music, the kind played on radio stations and gramophone records for ordinary people, white and black: protest songs, country, blues, early rock, gospel, mainstream music. He listened day and night, testing the stuff on his instruments, trying to learn. But when he started to write similar songs, they came out differently. In his hands, the material changed. From what he discovered in heirloom and scrap, in banal rhyme and quick wit, in curses and pious prayers, sweet nothings and crude jokes, he panned poetry gold, whether on purpose or by accident is irrelevant; all creativity begins in imitation.”
[“The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 - Presentation Speech". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 18 Dec 2016]
If you would like to read the entire presentation speech, please see the following link:
Of all the highlights of this year’s award, and the continual crisis and criticism this years Laureate has caused, this speech took the cake for symbolic and poetic justice.
Eight years ago, Horace Engdahl made unsavory comments with regards to the American literature, and a lack of a Nobel Laureate coming from the United States of America since Toni Morrison had won in nineteen-ninety three. Engdahl’s comments were that American literature was “too isolated and insular,” meaning it was incapable of challenging Europe as the literary hub of the world, and would further continue by stating: “they don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ...That ignorance is restraining.” I have not dined being a slight a defender of Engdahl’s comments, specifically referring to the lack of translation; in which many great writers are overlooked because of a language barrier, and a great of the world is left undiscovered because of a hesitation to translate. Despite some warranted criticism, many of the American literary establishment reacted against Engdahl and his comments with equal vitriolic comments.
In two-thousand and fourteen, Horace Engdahl had opened up about his previous comments, and would further elucidate upon them:
“Everyone reacted as if I’d said that the major American writers had no chance of winning the Nobel. I said nothing of the sort; I didn’t say that there were no worthy American writers. I said that American literary life, American criticism and teaching were limited today by too narrow an access to world literature, because the number of translations and their reach in the US is feeble. Everything is focused around their [US] writers and their language, like a hall of mirrors which reflects a perpetual, infinite image of America.”
Now though years later, from the initial comments, and hearing Engdahl praise the decision of his fellow Swedish Academy member’s decision to name American singer/songwriter, Bob Dylan, as this year’s Nobel Laureate must have been sweet poetic justice for the American literary establishment. Yet for me it was ironic, to hear Bob Dylan being praised by a Swedish Academy member who had once criticized the literary establishment of America, but has extended this same criticism towards western literature. Now the grumpy old member of the Swedish Academy was now praising one of the most controversial decisions of the Swedish Academy of contemporary memory, by going so far as to state in his speech:
“All of a sudden, much of the bookish poetry in our world felt anaemic, and the routine song lyrics his colleagues continued to write were like old-fashioned gunpowder following the invention of dynamite. Soon, people stopped comparing him to Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams and turned instead to Blake, Rimbaud, Whitman, Shakespeare.”
After Horace Engdahl’s speech about Bob Dylan and his Nobel Prize for Literature, the stage was turned upwards towards the balcony above the stage; where seated next to the conductor Marie Rosenmir, was the American ‘punk poet laureate,’ Patti Smith. Seeing as Bob Dylan was unable to attend the Nobel ceremony, Patti Smith had gone as his proxy, and in doing so sang his song: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” However, during the performance of the song, Patti Smith faltered slightly, incapable to bring forth the lyrics of the song. With great dignity she apologized, and explained that she was nervous, yet with jubilant applause, she was able to pick up, from where she found difficulty, and continued the song as if nothing had happened only moments before. In seeing that moment, I felt complete sympathy for Patti Smith. Our disagreement over Bob Dylan his new status as a poet, his Nobel Prize for Literature – they had all dissolved in that moment in which we have all been before. Patti Smith’s stumble was not a failure though. She was hesitant in her performance, and overcome with nerves and anxiety, as many of us have been and will be time and time again. No one can truly hold it against Patti Smith, who showcased great resolve and resilience to finish the song with great strength as she had begun. She paid a great tribute to her fellow musician and singer, and a dear friend I am sure. Her performance is memorable not because of one small floundering moment, but rather because of the real human experience of it; the moment in which even the greatest performers are overcome with the terrors of anxiety and nerves; in which no one can transcend, no matter how hard we practice or refine ourselves.
The last stage of Bob Dylan’s words making the appearance for the night was the banquet speech, which was read by the American Ambassador to Sweden: Azita Raji. In this banquet speech Bob Dylan, directly comments the question which has plagued and divided the literary community: “is this literature?” Dylan contemplates, the English literary giant himself, William Shakespeare playwright and poet, in how he attempted to deal with the conundrum in which he has been dealt with as of late. In his speech, Dylan notes:
“I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn't have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I'm sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: "Who're the right actors for these roles?" "How should this be staged?" "Do I really want to set this in Denmark?" His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. "Is the financing in place?" "Are there enough good seats for my patrons?" "Where am I going to get a human skull?" I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare's mind was the question "Is this literature?"’
["Bob Dylan - Banquet Speech". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 17 Dec 2016. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/dylan-speech.html]
Though I dare not digress and attempt to get into an argument about the difference between Shakespeare’s plays and the songs of Bob Dylan; I will say to a degree that yes Shakespeare most certainly did not preoccupy himself with the thought of what he was doing was of literary merit or not. This being said, a song by Bob Dylan does not compare to the Elizabethan sonnet, or the poems of Shakespeare. Nor do his songs compare with the great poets of the contemporary era, or of Nobel Laureates come and gone. Bob Dylan’s Nobel grab, has certainly stirred the debate of whether or not his songs and music are best comparable to literature. Be they are or be it they are not, has often now come down to being beside the point. Some have viewed Dylan’s award as an insult to both literature as a whole as well as poetry; but even more specifically an insult to American poetry and American poets. Don’t hold your breath, Sharon Olds or John Asherby; Bob Dylan is the best model of American poetry currently at work today.
Whether or not I agree his songs amount to poetry, no longer matters. The damage so to speak is done. Bob Dylan is officially a Nobel Laureate in Literature, and he has been inducted to the literary pantheon of the greats, alongside: Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Mann, Pear S Buck, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw – the same Laureates in whom he had referred to in his banquet speech. Though Admittedly Gentle Reader, after a while, Bob Dylan and his Nobel, have faded from my mind. Though I do not agree with the decision by the Swedish Academy, and noticed great ironies in the presentation such as Horace Engdahl reading the ceremony speech, in which he elucidated the academy’s decision. There is very little I or any dissident or detractor for the decision can do to change the already drying ink of the status and the win for Dylan. One colleague at work once commented to me: the prize will forever be ruined for me, as from now on, there will only be: pre-Bob Dylan [win] and post-Bob Dylan. To my colleague, you are wrong. The Nobel Prizes (Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace and Economics) have a long storied history. Those who have been chosen to be name a Nobel Laureate, are considered the greatest minds of their time, which includes writers from William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Octavio Paz, Wisława Szymborska, Herta Müller, and Alice Munro. Bob Dylan has not soiled or destroyed the Nobel Prize for Literature at all. He may have bruised it, and caused many of us to retreat and lick our wounds, but he has not obliterated the award. As for the ceremony speech, in which the following statement was uttered:
“bookish poetry in our world felt anaemic.”
The ‘bookish,’ poetry in our world is not anaemic. Great poets still exists and are hard at work as ever, crafting and refining more beautiful poems, as they are under threat of extinction in a world which no longer wishes to view them with any importance; preferring the popular music of the radio, to the serious craft which is going on locked behind closed doors. Serious poets still exists, and are still at work. Their words still move us; help us see with greater clarity, and seek to name and understand the world with greater poetic insight.
I had hoped for a poet to become this year’s Nobel Laurate in Literature; and in all I wasn't disappointed (though I say that with great irony). However, rather than getting my back up any further to which only leads to hissing and fighting over the debate of literature, I now treat Bob Dylan’s Nobel with indifference and apathy. I do not plan on engaging with his songs or rushing out to buy his albums, I do not hold his songwriting as a work of a poet either. Bob Dylan was, is, and forever will be a musician and a singer first and foremost, and after a long list of titles which can be attributed to his name, poet would most certainly be either near the bottom or at the bottom. Yet tomorrow is a new year, and a new Nobel Laureate will be named then. On that note: we can only hope that the Swedish Academy is now complete with its revolutionary and sensational decisions with future Nobel Laureates. Svetlana Alexievich was well deserved and a breath of fresh air. Bob Dylan was controversial from the start. Let’s hope true writers, who write, and must do battle with the intangible beast of language, are seen fit to gather greater focus and attention in the coming years, as they deserve it.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
And As Always
Stay Well Read
For further reading on this year’s Nobel Laureate and the ceremony please see the following links: