The Book!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bringing the Nobel Back Home







I am delighted that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is about time the Nobel Committee did something right.

The resistance to the selection has been strong and predictable. That is a good sign. As Confucius pointed out, if a man has no enemies, he is suspect. If a decision faces no resistance, it is not a good decision.

In National Review, Ian Tuttle writes, “isn’t Bob Dylan a songwriter? To my mind, the achievement of a great song is that words and music are seamlessly integrated, and you’d ruin the thing if you separated one from the other.” Others have called the award a “categorization error,” and japed, “next up: Keith Richard wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.”

No. Has Tuttle ever heard of “lyric poetry”? Does he know, then, what a lyre is? Back when we understood and cared for poetry, we understood that it was really a form of music. It was all originally sung, and not just “lyric” poetry, either. We have, inadvisedly, recently separated the one from the other. This has been bad for both music and poetry.

As for the two being seamless, back when we understood poetry, even a hundred years or so ago, as a matter of course, a good poem was soon set to music, often to several different tunes. And a good tune soon got several sets of lyrics. I think I can see the seams there. This is true of most of our best-known folk songs—words and music evolved separately. On might mention, for example, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or “O Canada.” Or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” or “Amazing Grace.” Not great songs?

Even where this is not the case, is it not common practice for different people to write the lyrics and the music? How can that be seamless? Has Tuttle never heard of Gilbert and Sullivan? Weber and Rice? Jagger and Richards? Rogers and Hammerstein? Not great songs?

Tuttle goes on to ask, “Have you ever recited the lyrics of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’? They need that melody.”

Very well. Challenge accepted. Let’s have a look:

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.
Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

Though you might hear laughin', spinnin' swingin' madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'
And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're
Seein' that he's chasing.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

I am sorry; I guess there is no disputing taste; but to my ear you have here some of the finest poetry in the English language. Where is there a better line anywhere than “Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow”?

Tuttle is not alone here. A highly literate friend recites some more Dylan lyrics, in protest at the prize, claiming them to be notably bad:

Buy me a flute
And a gun that shoots
Tailgates and substitutes
Strap yourself
To the tree with roots
You ain’t goin’ nowhere
Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow’s the day
My bride’s gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair!

and

Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine
An’ I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that
But then again, there’s only one I’ve met
An’ he just smoked my eyelids
An’ punched my cigarette”
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again

Notably bad? I say they’re awfully good. Who has never had the Memphis blues? Who cannot feel here the emotions of a man about to get married?

I think my friend’s problem is that they are “nonsense.” Nobody really smokes anyone’s eyelids. Nobody flies in an easy chair.

Dylan’s writing is impressionistic, stream of consciousness. It cannot be reduced to a simple narrative. But then, if it could be reduced to a simple narrative, why bother writing a lyric? Dylan is conveying emotions, and doing it very well. How is he different in this regard from, say, TS Eliot? James Joyce? Samuel Beckett?

The very superficial disjointedness is part of the point. Dylan is portraying intense emotional states. When we are in an intense emotional state, our experience of our surroundings, and our thoughts, are indeed disjointed. Dylan is giving an accurate depiction of that; not an easy thing to do.

To be honest, though, my friend’s quote from “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” misses its best lines:

Genghis Khan he could not keep
All his kings supplied with sleep
We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep
When we get up to it.

Childish? Childlike? Surely that’s exactly the point.

I think the real problem here is that Dylan is “low” culture. He is too popular. He uses common phrases, common images, common experiences of common men. He did not go to college.

This is just what I love most about the Nobel selection.

There is always an attempt by the social and economic ruling classes, the rich, established, and powerful, to take the best of culture and claim it as their own, and unappreciated by the great unwashed. It tends to justify their rule. This is a lie. It is a damned lie, given that the same class of people usually starves and persecutes when alive the same artists they appropriate to themselves as soon as they are good and safely dead.

Contrary to the mythology, it is not as often the people who reject a really great new artist. It is the academy. Shakespeare was popular entertainment in his day. So was Dickens. The romantics, best of British poets, were in their inception an attempt to keep poetic diction on the level of everyday speech and common experience, to bring art back to the streets and hedgerows. More recently, the Beats tried the very same thing. Whenever art becomes alone the possession of some self-appointed sophisticated cognoscenti, as has modern opera, modern poetry, modern jazz, postmodern anything, it loses all vitality, all reality, and all quality. It becomes dry and academic and wheezingly anemic and, in a word, phony.

That a thing is popular is no proof that it is good, granted. But, equally, that a thing is unpopular is rather worse proof that it is.

The mob may have rejected Jesus, but only at the urging, do recall, of the Sanhedrin.

Recognizing genuinely fine popular culture like Dylan may help revive poetry itself, now hopelessly moribund because it has been co opted by academic and pseudo-intellectual poseurs of the sort that attend classical concerts in tie and tails. Or, as bad or worse, affect torn jeans and Che Guevara T-shirts. And have no idea what poetry is, but know what they are supposed to pretend to like.

In addition to this, to disdain popular art is, right from the opening gun, to disdain American culture specifically. That, as de Tocqueville points out almost two hundred years ago, and as Andy Warhol more recently reminds us, is the essence of America. And in this America is the cutting edge, the avant garde, the artistic future for us all. Not to mention the true Christian option, the moral choice. Art comes from depth of soul, not material or social position.

Another good thing about the Dylan selection is that it flies in the face of the modern mistaken cult of innovation in the arts. Dylan is deeply rooted in tradition, as any good artist ought to be. Cultures are to be built upon, not blasted back to rubble.

And now that I think of it, Keith Richards, too, deserves his Nobel for Chemistry. He obviously knows a lot about chemical substances.

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