October 14, 2016

"But whether Mr. Dylan is a poet — yes, he is being compared right now to Sappho, Homer, the great bards who sang — has never been an interesting question."

"Mr. Dylan has put his words out into the world in vessels with too many dimensions to be broken down into elements: as songs. Think of a song as thrillingly alive with the furies of creation, discovery and experiment, with the resolution of each verse reaching a pitch of such insistence, humor and force that the next has to push further or die. Think of 'Highway 61 Revisited,' from 1965 — a song that Mr. Dylan performed last week at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif...."

That's Greil Marcus, writing in the NYT putting an important spin on the argument why it made sense for Bob Dylan to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: It's not whether a song can be detached from its music and regarded as a poem, but the song as a song, at one with its music.

And I love Marcus's first paragraph, on why it's not surprising that the novelist Don DeLillo did not win the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.


Michael McClain said...

Pretentious bullshit.

Drago said...

"Mr. Dylan has put his words out into the world in vessels with too many dimensions to be broken down into elements:"

Well, something tells me that if we really buckled down we could actually get our hands around these many dimensions and elements and break them down methodically.

Unless, of course, the deep deep complexities of Dylan contain within them multitudes upon multitudes in a potentially ever-growing fractal-like expansion of said dimensions and elements.

Upon further reflection....nah.

Drago said...

Not that I dislike Dylan, mind you.

Laslo Spatula said...

Lamar Gonna Set You Straight....

Leave it to White People to give a big prize to a White Guy with a Rhyming Dictionary. White People: sometimes it ain't Poetry, sometimes it's just fucking casserole, you feel me...?

And White People, they love their Word Casserole. Black People, we've been singin' the Blues from the Heart for centuries, and it don't mean shit until a White Man says it means shit, with Big White Man Words. Fuck that. The BLUES is poetry, bitches: Son House wrote more of value than Bob Dylan ever did.

Howlin' Wolf wrote the World Bluer than Bob Dylan ever did.

Muddy Waters wrote the World Truer than Bob Dylan ever did.

And Little Walter stomped his white ass on the harmonica.

But I know how you White People think: It ain't Literature -- the Blues jess comes natural to us darkies, ain't that right...?

You think you got Problems? Fuck You.

I am Laslo.

Sarah from VA said...

I tried to introduce my husband Ben to Bob Dylan last night -- Hey, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature; here, listen to one of his songs. We got about 30 seconds of singing before my husband begged me to stop it. Ben has perfect pitch and a sensitive ear. He cannot stand listening to people slide around a note. Therefore, we listen to almost no music in our home, except for the Suzuki CDs for our daughter's violin lessons. I'll occasionally get into the habit of listening to something while he's working, but my children are all sensitive in their own ways about music, and usually beg me to turn it off.

So while it's a good point that you can't really divorce the words from the music, there are a whole lot of people out there who cannot appreciate the music, as sung by Dylan. Can we get some good covers of these songs?

Sydney said...

@Michael McClain - I like to imagine that's what Dylan thinks, too.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

One of the things I don't get about Robert Burns is why his song lyrics are classified as poems. They might be okay song lyrics but they're pretty dumb as poems, IMHO.

And now I'm wondering whether Bob Dylan would have been awarded any Nobel prize at all were there one for music in addition to one for literature.

rhhardin said...

Sappho was the first to use the harmonica.

rhhardin said...

Ballads use literary devices, like mutual metaphor

She leaned her back against a thorn
(Fine flowers in the valley)
And there she has her young child born
(and the green leave they grow rarely)

distinguished from metaphor by both being meant to really be there.

Sebastian said...

"We got about 30 seconds of singing before my husband begged me to stop it." I don't have perfect pitch but I feel his pain.

I understand the obvious point that Dylan's songs might work as a whole, mixing language, music, and performance. The Gestalt is more than the sum of its parts, as Freud didn't say. L'ho perduta doesn't look like much on the page. You wouldn't give Da Ponte a Nobel for it. But Mozart turns it into a gem.

OK. But without going all literalist, presumably the Nobel for literature also honors the use of language as such, as one of the prime elements in songs. Dylan's words get cited as evidence of his bardy brilliance. Our hostess intertwines her own thoughts with Dylan's, and I would think the thoughts have to do with the content of the words, even if a song enhances their emotional impact. Commentators in the WSJ today praise the creativity of his language, and long excerpts display his way with words. But then I read and wonder why.

Mick said...

When they gave the Peace Prize to Obama and the Economics Prize to Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize officially became meaningless.

William said...

One of the advantages of operas sung in a foreign language is that you don't understand how banal the lyrics are. Or maybe they're not all that banal, it's just that the music is so soaring and magnificent that no words can properly fit the emotions that the music inspires. I've looked up the English translations of some of my favorite arias, and I'm usually disappointed........Perhaps the vague imagery in Dylan's lyrics serves the same purpose. They enhance rather than define the mood that the music inspires.

tim in vermont said...

He cannot stand listening to people slide around a note.

Well, if he is a violinist himself, then there is a good chance he is considered a "square."

William said...

The big five in the American Songbook are Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers. None of them presented themselves as the total package. Berlin and Porter wrote their own lyrics but wisely refrained from making concert appearances. They were far more gifted melodically than Dylan, but it must be said that Dylan has had far more impact on people's lives than those other composers.......Dylan belongs more in the tradition of George M. Cohan, Johnny Mercer, and Hoagy Carmichael. These composers not only wrote and performed their own material but crafted a persona to fit the delivery of that material. Hoagy Carmichael deserves particular credit in this regard. He was the first cool guy composer/performer. If only he had fashioned a "this machine kills fascists" banner above his piano, he would still be celebrated today........Woody Guthrie fashioned the image of the songwriter/singer as the visionary hero. Those others were bards who did bardic things like sing songs celebrating the hero. Woody, like Lord Byron, became the hero that his verses celebrated. That's what Dylan picked up from Guthrie. Dylan''s music is a celebration of Dylan, but he throws in enough sjw stuff to appear morally heroic.

buwaya puti said...

Ok, lets just say that Dylan QUALIFIES on a basic level for the Nobel, in that his stuff is literature. Thats one prerequisite down.
And on the question of quality, well, obviously the Nobel has been given to worse writers, so he isnt out of the scope of the field being considered.
Beyond that, its all up to the committee. Their call, and a question of their taste and whimsy.
Whether he was the best possible choice is still a good question and IMHO the only correct answer is - certainly not.
However, thats all anyone can expect from the Nobels - " Fair Enough".

Martin said...

More power to Bob Zimmerman, I'm sure he can use the million bucks and all, but 50 years from now people will look at this and scratch their heads.

He is a mediocre composer and as a lyricist his stuff is a little above the level of a good advertising jingle--catchy sound bites that make you feel good about yourself being a smart, sensitive, caring person (ugh!) but really not very deep or perceptive or beautiful. He caught the '60s wave at just the right time, early enough to help shape it, and rode it for all it was worth.

But overall, eh.

Smilin' Jack said...

So while it's a good point that you can't really divorce the words from the music, there are a whole lot of people out there who cannot appreciate the music, as sung by Dylan. Can we get some good covers of these songs?

Joan Baez made quite a few silk purses out of those sows' ears on "Any Day Now".

As a lyricist, if Dylan deserved the Prize, Miley Cyrus deserves two.

traditionalguy said...

Homer is the founder of poetry tales sung to a tune. And he is still king.

But Dylan mixed his poetry with a Hebrew Prophet's social judgement. That was quite a feat.

eddie willers said...

Way back, when Rolling Stone, was still a folded pulp, if Greil Marcus liked it, I bought it.

FullMoon said...

William said... [hush]​[hide comment]
.......... Dylan''s music is a celebration of Dylan, but he throws in enough sjw stuff to appear morally heroic.

Kind of interesting he wrote heroic songs about psychopaths: John Wesley Harding Joey Gallo(?) George Jackson, Hurricane Carter. Did he really believe these guys were A-ok? Or was he just foolin' around?

Bruce Gee said...

It strikes me as unfair to compare poetry combined with music to naked poetry on its own. On the one hand you have imported emotion which, properly done, underlies and strengthens the word. On the other--a much more difficult endeavor--you have naked word that requires much more of the reader and the writer. Music creates an emotional world; the word in music can be much weaker because of it.

Years ago when my oldest son was blasting out sonnets at an amazing rate, I would tell him if he wanted to get rich, he should put them to music. I guess he preferred to just be another poor poet.

BN said...

Modern/post-modern art is an inside joke on the bourgeoisie. Awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature is performance Dada. I like it.

The committee deserves an award for that, perhaps a participation ribbon.

Bill Peschel said...

Hearing that he won put a smile on my face. This has been a year in which one unbelievable thing has followed on another. My first shocks were seeing Bowie and Prince go. That affected me more than Michael Jackson's death, which seemed to end a sad, bizarre life. For while there, it seemed like every couple of weeks brought news that made me say, "Aw, damn. That, too?"

But this was the first positive bizarre thing. Let's face it, seeing the Nobel being given to Arafat and the Participation Trophy to Obama, I don't think they could go down any lower.

But this was, at the least, harmless and risky. Whatever faults you may credit him, he's taken a lot of music and a lot of books, and tried to mash them up into something that moves forward American traditional music.

Best of all, he stays out of the way otherwise. He doesn't tell us what he thinks politically. He doesn't go polemical. He focuses on what he can do: put music on a record and tour a lot.

You gotta admire his restraint. That's very, very un-American.

Now, the question is, will Bob show up? Will he give a speech? Or (my best guess), he'll play for them and let that be his statement.

wildswan said...

Can we get some good covers?

Alison Krause sings I Believe in You
Odetta Sings Bob Dylan is on Youtube. She was a classically trained singer

Zach said...

Sappho is very interesting. She spoke a weird dialect of Greek that nobody could understand, so her entire reputation is based on the 650 lines of her poetry that anybody remembers.

Which is about 600 more than Dylan. Something, something, blowin' in the wind.

You can say he's head and shoulder above other rock lyricists, and maybe that's even true, but he hasn't been commercially relevant for decades. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits came out in 1967, which seems about right. That was the year Seargent Pepper's was released, so "head and shoulders" would be a major stretch even then.

I think it's just category error. If you lump a moderately popular rock star in with a bunch of poets, he looks incredibly influential. But if you widen the category just a smidgen, he doesn't seem so unique any more. If you included John Lennon or Paul McCartney in the discussion, Dylan would look like a second rank star once again. But the Nobel Committee somehow convinced themselves that the correct category was Dylan plus a bunch of poets, so they never had to answer the hard question.