Monday, October 24, 2016

Poets’ heads burst into flame over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

I’d better get my prejudices out of the way first. I don’t think it’s the job of readers and listeners to pay painstaking attention to poetry. Rather, it's the job of poets to capture the attention of readers and listeners.

For decades, starting in the 1960s, Bob Dylan has built audiences by interesting people in listening to him. His melodies were not all that melodic. Nor was his raspy voice. But when he sang the songs he wrote, the world looked up and paid rapt attention, then repeated his message, which in large measure during the 1960s and 1970s related to the Viet Nam War.

So I was fascinated by some recent posts on the website of PENAmerica, an organization I strongly admire for the way it champions free expression and advocates for imprisoned authors and journalists. Despite this, the website suddenly has become infested by a swarm of curmudgeonly poets, their knickers evidently in an irate and not very lyrical twist, over Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Smiling-but-grumpy poet 
Amy King

 Their comments are quoted at great length at this link. But before you go there, let me share some observations:
  • From the selection presented by PENAmerica, it appears that while novelists and journalists and editors mostly approve Dylan’s winning the award, most of the poets are enraged by it. Why is that, do you suppose? Do you think jealousy could have anything to do with it? Nah! Or maybe not nah.
  • The essence of the un-lyrical kvetching of America’s poets — or at least of the poetic darlings of academia — seem to be that Dylan’s lyrics are easy to follow. Thus Molly Brodak grouses, “If the written word is truly up against the art of songwriting for the greatest literary prize in all the land, ‘baby, baby, baby, oh baby’ is going to win every time.” 
    Grumpy Poet Molly Brodak
  • It's interesting that Brodak chose that passage rather than “A hard rain's gonna fall” or “the answer is blowin' in the wind,” to name just two memorable lines. As for Brodak herself, she is author of lines of this ilk:
Panic, because suddenly everything signifies,a kind of net of sunlight, pulling all directions at once;
the background's flaw is that it beckons:
the poodle's boat, Noah's palm, the dove-magnet:
a barbarity! A flame at the vanishing point!
Brodak’s complaint is part of an enormous tumor that has been metastasizing its way through academia for the past 50 years or so — the notion that one should have to work hard to understand poetry. Or that otherwise the poetry is unworthy. That’s something that, for example,  none of the many poetic authors of the Bible, nor William Shakespeare, ever proposed. Somehow I’m willing to bet that more people alive today have been touched by the first line of The Book of Genesis, or can recite the first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy, than any of the verses of Molly Brodock.

Grumpy poet Daniel
Schoonbeck seems to think
the Nobel Peace Prize should
promote poets. Peace? What's 
Other complaints include that Dylan is white (Poet Amy King and poet Natalie, Diaz who alternatively nominates Bob Marley); that he’s a pop poet (Amy King); that “…educators do not cite his poems to study in depth,” (Amy King); and that his life’s work has not “changed the way we use language. ” (Amy King.)

All of this caterwauling ignores the fact that the Nobel is not awarded for changing language or becoming a text that students will have to parse if they intend to pass their lit courses, or for promotion of particular artists. There’s a far higher motive at the bottom of it that today’s academic poets can’t seem to grasp:

Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, became painfully aware that his invention might be used to wage war and kill thousands of people. He created the Nobel Peace Prize in the hope that it would be awarded to people who promoted peace in some powerful way. The literature prize, as well as various prizes that promote knowledge in the sciences, are spinoffs of that.

And promoting peace is precisely what Dylan’s songs did. They were part of a movement in the arts, and most particularly in folk music, that made a huge contribution toward putting an end to one of the most bloody and senseless wars in which America has ever engaged — the war in Viet Nam. Bob Marley didn’t do that. Neither did the novelist Don DeLillo, a nice guy and a favorite of the disgruntled poets, but not Nobel-level when it comes to having actually played a major role in discouraging the continuation of a war.

DeLillo's novels are certainly worthwhile. But they do not approach what Dylan achieved in persuading large numbers of people to demand peace. To quote the late David Ogilvy (who will probably be demeaned by the academic poets as a mere "ad man"):

"When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks." But when Demosthenes spoke they said, 'Let us march.'" 

And make no mistake, Dylan had us marching, by the tens and hundreds of thousands, in peace protests that brought down one president because he wouldn't or couldn't end the war, and that forced the next administration to finally put a stop to it.

If I could have one wish, it would be that another troubadour of the Viet Nam era share the prize, a troubadour who employed a single song to tell a story that helped build the anti-war protest of the 1960s. 

I’m referring to Arlo Guthrie and his song, or poem, or story, or rallying cry, “Alice’s Restaurant.” It's a musical tale that starts with a garbage dump, moves on to a draft board physical exam, and finishes with an infectious chorus of war defiance. It is also distinguished for being possibly the longest pop song in American history. You can find it here. Leave yourself plenty of time to listen.

Should Bob Dylan win — and please, Bob, accept — the Nobel Prize? Yes, because all these decades later, the answer to how popular movements help to end wars is still blowing in the wind, while too many American poets who envy Dylan (or Guthrie) are merely blowing smoke.


Anonymous said...

Knickers in a ... knot, please.

Jenny said...

Arlo Guthrie!