October 14, 2016

I do understand how some literalists look at the word "Literature" and say that it denotes material that is to be read.

Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary says:
In English originally "book learning" (in which sense it replaced Old English boccræft); the meaning "activity of a writer, the profession of a literary writer" is first attested 1779 in Johnson's "Lives of the English Poets;" that of "literary productions as a whole, body of writings from a period or people" is first recorded 1812.
Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. [Ezra Pound, "ABC of Reading"]
Meaning "the whole of the writing on a particular subject" is by 1860; sense of "printed matter generally" is from 1895....
Oh, hang on. I have a point I'm making. But I have Dylanmind and I must disrupt my literature — such as it is — to do my Dylan imitation. You're reading, but imagine hearing it:
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 — "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry."

Ezra Pound never won. Nor did Ezra Pound really fight with T.S. Eliot in the captain's tower, whatever that is. Back when "Desolation Row" came out, it was 1965, and we would have assumed that something called "the captain's tower" was a phallus, but people don't talk like that anymore. And why didn't Sigmund Freud win the Nobel Prize in Literature? That was some kick-ass literature he wrote. It came out in book form, and people read those books.



That's
Ezra. Man, look at him. He looks like Bob Dylan.
Angered by the carnage of World War I, Pound lost faith in England and blamed the war on usury and international capitalism. He moved to Italy in 1924, and throughout the 1930s and 1940s he embraced Benito Mussolini's fascism, expressed support for Adolf Hitler, and wrote for publications owned by the British fascist Oswald Mosley. During World War II, he was paid by the Italian government to make hundreds of radio broadcasts criticizing the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jews, as a result of which he was arrested in 1945 by American forces in Italy on charges of treason. He spent months in detention in a U.S. military camp in Pisa, including three weeks in a six-by-six-foot outdoor steel cage, which he said triggered a mental breakdown: "when the raft broke and the waters went over me". Deemed unfit to stand trial, he was incarcerated in St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., for over 12 years.
Oh, Ezra. There are winners and losers, and he's a big time loser. But he said — see above — "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." He didn't say, it's got to be read. He said it is language, the best of language. That would include words written to be heard, not read, if only the words were good enough. But he had terrible political judgment.

Yet you are the literalist perhaps, and politics has no part in your assessment of the meaning of words. Literature is stuff that you read, and Bob Dylan's songs are designed to be heard mixed up with sounds from musical instruments, sounds that are not words at all.

But the Nobel Committee is not a committee on precision in language, and it controls the scope of the meaning of its prize. It doesn't have to give the prize to the person who most closely embodies the meaning of the name of the prize. And anyway, the committee is operating in Swedish. If you're so hot to be literal, start speaking Swedish.

66 comments:

Sydney said...

But what does the OED say?

David said...

A Buick 59 mention!

Ann Althouse said...

David, you meant to say that on the previous post.

David Begley said...

If Dylan does speak at the award ceremony - instead of sing - he needs to quote Althouse here. Better yet. Althouse and Meade as Bob's guests.

Ann Althouse said...

Sydney, do you really want to know? I did read the OED entry as I wrote this post.

The Cracker Emcee said...

Oof. Dropping the names of poets in song lyrics is like the primo folkie douche move. I would have expected better of Dylan. Of course, he was a callow youth at the time so we'll cut him some slack.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I wonder whether there was precedent laid down for all this when awards for literature were given to poets and playwrights.

surfed said...

Pretty nice literal accolade for a self described "entertainer".

Laslo Spatula said...

Lamar Gonna Set You Straight....

Damn! I was just talking about the Blues as Literature right here...

I ain't got no problem with songs at Literature: I'm just wonderin' when you're gonna get around to acknoledging that the only songs you White People see as literature are the songs written by White People...

Maybe it's because White People rhyming is like White People playing basketball: you're just happy One of You can even do it...

Gunshots ranged out like a bell
I grabbed my nine, all I heard was shells
Falling on the concrete real fast
Jumped in my car, slammed on the gas
Bumper to bumper, the avenue's packed
I'm trying to get away before the jackers jack
Police on the scene, you know what I mean
They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends

I know: you all gonna say that ain't poetry. And you're right: it's fuckin' Vanilla Ice, bitches. You White People can't even tell the difference between the Black Man's Art and the Whites who rip them off...

So enjoy your White Artists, writing White Shit for White People: keep pretending that it speaks to people other than you. You should know better, but that would make you all Sad inside, because you know you're not Racist, you just like White Things. Keep fuckin' the casserole, bitches...

You think you got Problems? Fuck You.

I am Laslo.

Sebastian said...

"If Dylan does speak at the award ceremony - instead of sing - he needs to quote Althouse here. Better yet. Althouse and Meade as Bob's guests." That would be very nice.

David Begley said...

Ezra Pound was not related to Roscoe and Louise Pound, the Nebraska Pounds. Louise was a champion golfer.

tim in vermont said...

If modern written poetry was anything other than the dreck that it is, they might have a case. But poetry has always been performed.

David said...

Pound made the mistake of ensnaring himself in politics, a trap Dylan has avoided.

Jeff Gee said...

"Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance... poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music." -- Ezra Pound, also from 'ABC of Reading' (I think).

rhhardin said...

There's wagon-lit, sleeping car.

Wilbur said...

And then there's the Bob Knight view: "All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things."

tim in vermont said...

Jerry Garcia was a better poet than guitarist.

Sydney said...

@Althouse- Yes, I do! I am not teasing. I enjoy the OED's historical tracings of a word. And I do not have a subscription or own the big book.

Laslo Spatula said...

Are there any black people on Desolation Row? Or are the blacks a block over, on a worse, less poetic, street?

I am Laslo.

Peter said...

"Ezra Pound never won."
Perhaps because, although people still read Eliot, practically no one read (or reads) Pound.


" Back when "Desolation Row" came out, it was 1965, and"
And in 1965 high school students still read Prufrock and The Wasteland. T.S. Eliot's star has fallen a long way since 1965.


"why didn't Sigmund Freud win the Nobel Prize in Literature? That was some kick-ass literature he wrote. It came out in book form, and people read those books."
Umm, because psychoanalysis was supposed to be "science"? Except it wasn't (and very few "read those books" anymore).

James L. Salmon said...

I was never a big Dylan fan and had little appreciation for his talents until I began to read the Althouse blog. Even then I was rarely moved listen to Dylan much. And when I did I found him hard to understand. Though, to be fair, the same is true of most music outside the country genre. Reading and studying actual lyrics heightens one's appreciation of music, especially songs. It is Althouse's analysis of Dylan's actual lyrics that garnered by appreciation for his music. Reading and understanding the lyrics infuses Dylan's songs with deeper meaning for me. The lyrics read more like tortured poetry that speaks harshly to the reader, while the sung songs are more soothing. I find Eminem to deliver similarly discordant messages in his music. His lyrics, in written form, are dark powerful commentaries while the live delivery, in rap form, tends convey a lighter more upbeat view of the world. Lacking any semblance of musical talent myself I appreciate when the Althouses of the world peel back a layer of the onion on something like Dylan's work. And her efforts prepared me for Dylan winning the Nobel Price for Literature.

GRW3 said...

Random thoughts...

Accusing Dylan of cheap folkie mechanics is like saying that Gone With the Wind is too clichéd. That misses the point that both were progenitors

It's been noted that Ginger Rodgers did everything Fred Astaire did only backwards in high heels. Songwriters do everything poets do only set to music.

Jerry Garcia was actually a gifted banjo player but he had to make a living. It was only the success of the Dead that allowed him to spend time playing banjo. His Bluegrass Band, Old and In the Way, was one of the most successful in the '70s.

Laslo Spatula said...

Who wrote more White: Bob Dylan or F. Scott Fitzgerald?

I am Laslo.

Ken B said...

This doesn't vindicate Welsh's complaint about narcissistic boomers oo-ing over the nostalgia aaward (insert eye roll here).

Especially funny from a woman who usually mocks purple prose.

rhhardin said...

Music and Lyrics (Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore) was good.

They divided the labor.

tim in vermont said...

Faces in the crowd,
Like petals on a wet black bough.
- Ezra Pound

So much depends on the red, rain glazed wheelbarrow
Next to the white chickens
William Carlos Williams

These are the poets they were teaching us English majors about in the '70s.

BTW, I think it is far better that Dylan never explain anything, except, perhaps "Positively Fourth Street." Why limit the work? There is nothing to be gained artistically.

tim in vermont said...

rhardin, I almost never disagree with anything you write, but Music and Lyrics sucked. I liked The Re-Write, though. "Binghamton rocks!"

rhhardin said...

Ever since Klavan pointed out that women watch romantic comedies to see the man apologize to the woman, I've been noticing it.

I wonder if the appeal of sexual assault allegations to women is the possibility of another apology.

They don't care about whatever it is; they want the apology.

Dylan should write a song about it.

tim in vermont said...

The other main theme of RomComs is "Get an alpha male to commit."

robother said...

So, Shakespeare's plays aren't literature, or at least HIS literature, since he didn't write them down, and they were meant to be performed rather than read? Amazing how the medieval clerisy continues to cling to its gatekeeping role, even 500 years after the printing presses and now the internet has rendered it laughable.

rhhardin said...

The Rewrite was good but not as many witty lines. Barrymore and Grant were about equally matched in Music and Lyrics. Grant was smarter than the women in the Rewrite.

There was a nice moment in Rewrite where Grant gives good advice to the scorned woman student, that you can write your plot with a character that doesn't develop. She had herself as the good victim.

Lyle Smith said...

Ezra Pound is loved by some. Some American college houses a study abroad program in his former Italian residence and the classes are based around his writings. I met someone studying there while back packing in Europe.

Fabi said...

Jerry Garcia was a better banjo player than guitarist.

Curious George said...

"But he had terrible political judgment."

Much like the Nobel committee in particular and Norway and Sweden in general. Which, like Ezra, will lead to their demise. Soon the only prize will be for Jihad. Allahu Akbar.

rhhardin said...

Romcoms are a little discouragingly three act things, and the writers often pick a really stupid major crisis choice. How little this structure intrudes measures how good the thing is.

Fabi said...

GRW3 beat me to it -- well done.

rhhardin said...

Grant: Okay, here's what I think. I think that the truth is that you are terrified of losing [book character] Sally Michaels because you'd have nothing to hide behind and you'd have to stand on your own feet.

Drew: Wow. I didn't see that coming.

Grant: No. Well. I have amazing insight. I would use it on myself, only I don't have any problems.

- Music and Lyrics

tim in vermont said...

I will have to check out "Old and In the Way"

I never listened to the Dead until recently, and what keeps me listening are the lyrics, not the music, except "Truckin'" which rules me out as a "Dead Head."

dustbunny said...

I think it was just word play, and an interesting image, a fragment from the deluge of imagery and words in Dylan's young brain. Both poets were firmly embraced by members of the Ivory Tower but were also attacked for their antisemetic verse and comments. However it's possible to read (!!!) it as a prophetic vision of the two poets fighting over the influence of Jews in 20th century life. And now the Jewish visionary has crashed into the canon, scaling the tower. Although Dylan gets annoyed when he's referred to as a prophet.

mikee said...

So the Literature Prize is not yet as debased as the Peace Prize. So it has that going for it, which is nice.

mccullough said...

Wallace Stevens and Hemingway actually did fight one time. In Key West in 1936.

chickelit said...

tim in vermont said...Jerry Garcia was a better poet than guitarist.

Don't you mean Robert Hunter, the Dead's lyricist?

bagoh20 said...

I expect now a rapper will win soon. P.C. demands it. Some of it is good enough, but most is the opposite of good. In fact, I insist that many rap lyrics are the worst literature ever produced by mankind. Much of it is completely unredeemable, and the opposite of beauty or transcendence.

Ann Althouse said...

"Oof. Dropping the names of poets in song lyrics is like the primo folkie douche move. I would have expected better of Dylan. Of course, he was a callow youth at the time so we'll cut him some slack."

I still look back on "Desolation Row" and think it's as great as he gets, but he was relying on throwing in names that seemed like characters intellectuals would know... or, actually, high-school kids would know. He got past that. but I still like the old callow stuff, it's so casual and I need a name here.

Anyway, Shakespeare, he's in the alley, with his pointed shoes and his bells....

But who's he speaking to? John Milton? Lord Byron? No, just some French girl, who says she knows him well. And don't we all? It's Shakespeare!

Ann Althouse said...

"So the Literature Prize is not yet as debased as the Peace Prize. So it has that going for it, which is nice."

The Peace Prize is about the ideas that the committee thinks about under the label peace. They have the power to create that meaning. One time they decided that it meant inspiring a country with a racist past to elect a black man as President. That's what peace meant, within the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize. It's perfectly within their power, and you can use language the way you want and call that "debased," but I can see just as clearly a way to call it "exalted."

tim in vermont said...

Once I rented a car at Heathrow, it was a very wet day and being an American, I was getting used to driving on the left, so I was driving very slowly around this big curve getting onto the motorway. There was a red Porsche right on my tail, itching to pass me, but I ignored it. Finally the guy made his move and zipped around me, still on the curve, and he ended up spinning out and coming to a stop pointed right at me. Since I was going at a crawl, it was easy to stop, anyway, the driver got out of the car, patted his chest, and flashed an embarrassed smile at me that was like 1000 watts, then got back in his car and drove away. I always thought that guy was Hugh Grant.


chickelit,

Like I said, I am not a Dead Head, so yes, that's what I meant. Except now I am kind of disappointed.

rhhardin said...

Dylan gets mentioned as a poet:

Grant: That is real poetry. Those are real poets. Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, the Beatles.

Drew: Okay. What if one of your heroes came up to you and said-- You know, Smokey, what if he said: "Alex Fletcher, you are a horrible songwriter"? How would you react?

Grant: I know Smokey a little bit. He's too nice a gentleman ever to say such a thing. Dylan might. Dylan would, actually. In fact, Dylan did.

Drew: Okay, Dylan walks up to you and he says, "You are a horrible songwriter." - How do you react?

Grant: - I would be horribly depressed. Yes. I would. I would. But then, after, you know, months of brooding I would find a lyricist and write a song about how horribly depressed I was. And it would be a big hit, everyone would love me, and I'd make lots of money. Suddenly I'd be less depressed than if I just sat around being a little bit self-indulgent, letting my misery eat away at me until I'd become an emotional wreck and creatively completely moribund. Yes, moribund.

- Music and Lyrics

buwaya puti said...

Eliot hasnt fallen, as such, though its true he's no longer read in High School. Or colleges, much, it seems.
Its that High Schools have fallen, disastrously.
Colleges more so, apparently.

Otto said...

"If you're so hot to be literal, start speaking Swedish." AA your adolescence is showing. A young, small well behaved ,probably withdrawn girl bound by the oppressive traditions of society is here to defend her hero who expressed all of her hidden thoughts in doggerel prose. How dare you insult my god.

Amexpat said...

Technically, all the Nobel committees are supposed to follow Alfred Nobel's will. For the literature prize it's: " to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction."

Awarding the prize to Dylan perhaps veers from the "the field of literature" if an original intent interpretation is used. What's interesting is that Henrik Ibsen didn't get the prize because the literature committee formed shortly after Nobel's death thought his work didn't meet the "in an ideal direction" condition because of his subject matter. Today, being a critic of society and writing about "sordid" subjects probably helps more than hinders getting this prize.

William said...

Lyricists, unlike poets, can only use open vowels in their writing. Compare the German versus Italian librettos of Mozart to see why this is so. Lyricists have a far more limited word choice than poets, and perhaps for this reason very few song lyrics can stand alone as poetry......Ogden Nash was a comic poet, and a minor one at that. He's not much read today. He wrote the lyrics for the Kurt Weill song "Speak Low". I think those lyrics are truly poetic, independent of the melody. Many lyrics are heartfelt or witty or moving, but it's very rare that they can stand alone as poetry.

Mac McConnell said...

"The Peace Prize is about the ideas that the committee thinks about under the label peace. They have the power to create that meaning. One time they decided that it meant inspiring a country with a racist past to elect a black man as President. That's what peace meant, within the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize. It's perfectly within their power, and you can use language the way you want and call that "debased," but I can see just as clearly a way to call it "exalted.""

Then the committee should have given the peace prize to the white people of America.

rhhardin said...

Poets can use avowals and disavowels as well as just plain vowels.

TWW said...

"I do understand how some Literalists look at the word "Literature" and say that it denotes material that is to be read."

Interesting that the etymology of "literal" is "of or belonging to letters or writing"

chickelit said...

Interesting that the etymology of "literal" is "of or belonging to letters or writing"

I've understood that Dylan wrote down his lyrics as he composed them, even before singing them. Is that incorrect?

William said...

When Fitzgerald wrote of the green light at the end of the dock, he meant his words to be taken litorally.

tim in vermont said...

Accusing Dylan of cheap folkie mechanics is like saying that Gone With the Wind is too clichéd. That misses the point that both were progenitors

All Bill Shakespeare did was string a bunch of famous quotes together into plays.

FullMoon said...

The Cracker Emcee said... [hush]​[hide comment]

Oof. Dropping the names of poets in song lyrics is like the primo folkie douche move. I would have expected better of Dylan. Of course, he was a callow youth at the time so we'll cut him some slack.


I knew a man, his brain was so small,
He couldn't think of nothing at all.
He's not the same as you and me.
He doesn't dig poetry. He's so unhip that
When you say Dylan, he thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas,
Whoever he was.

Otto said...

Ugh 5'7" and 150 lbs, raised in a Jewish community in racist Diluth, Minnesota in the 50s. No wonder he looks whipped.

Tired - Next up is reTired said...

Ann - I am sure that you know that Ezra Pound's grandfather Thaddeus Coleman Pound was a WI politician who has two towns in the state named after him....Coleman and Pound.

mockturtle said...

That's Ezra. Man, look at him. He looks like Bob Dylan.

On his best day Dylan never looked that good.

mockturtle said...

Dylan Thomas was a poet. Bob Dylan, a second-rate songwriter and a third-rate singer.

mccullough said...

A woman drew her long black her out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

wildswan said...

Back in the day when literature courses taught literature and history of literature there was a theory that all literature began as songs of a popular kind - lyrics and ballads. Epics like Homer and Beowulf were reworked from historical ballads. Dante's Divine Comedy began with the songs of the troubadors of Provence. Wordsworth launched romanticism with Lyrical Ballads which imitated 14C ballads. Satire began in songs sung in certain festivals. Etc. So that is why I wondered just exactly why the Nobel Prize Committee chose a songwriter. Were they saying something about a new world wide literature forming springing out of American songs?

Or possibly saying that American literature had never yet formed?

Or they just liked Dylan and were utterly tired of the tired poetry they had been promoting? I love poetry and used to carefully obtain and read Gary Snyder, Charles Bukowski, John Ashberry, Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf and so on. But I stopped because there is nothing there. There's poems I remember from before the Fifties even Four Quartets (1943) and quite a lot of Dylan songs. It's an interesting decision by the Nobel Committee to say he represents a direction. The song base for a new literature?

Left Bank of the Charles said...

They let in the playwrights who are writing words to be spoken, and they let in the poets, whose words sometimes rhyme like songs. And they let in Dylan, not for "creating" but for "having created."

But let's not forget Tarantula, the poetry book Dylan actually published as literature. And he did publish several books of his lyrics too. So he does meet the minimum requirements to be considered a literary figure by the old school definition. And probably hasn't had enough book sales to be disqualified from Nobel consideration.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

Dylan's memoir (is anything more literature than a memoir?) is temporarily out of stock at Amazon.com.