Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

Yesterday, in Portland, the first thing my husband said when he saw me was "Bob Dylan! Did you hear about Bob?"

Tom is not the sort of man who gets excited about Nobel prizes, but he was clearly tickled about this one. So was I, but lots of people--including writers, maybe especially writers--were not so pleased. I'd say my Facebook writers' feed was split about 50-50, half of them joyous, the other half appalled.

Among the appalled, a certain number just didn't like Bob Dylan's voice or his canon. Some were irritated that one more old white guy was winning a big prize. (And by the way: where are the women on the Nobel list? Not a single woman won a prize this year.) Some were convinced that the Nobel deciders were unfairly conflating song lyrics with poetry. Some saw looming chasms in the future administration of literature prizes. For instance, here's what the executive director of the Academy of American Poets wrote:
While some poems can be songs and poems can be read, spoken, chanted, recited, or sung, the Nobel Committee for Literature presented Bob Dylan with their 2016 award for "creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Although it seems clear from this official citation that the committee is recognizing Dylan as a songwriter, it's fair for working poets to wonder whether this is in fact the case, as one member of the committee describes Dylan as a "great poet in the English tradition . . . a great sound poet. . . . " 
Few would argue with the notion that Dylan is an icon who has made a lasting impression on the many readers of his lyrics and other writing, and his listeners—perhaps especially on the generation that grew up with his music. But not all poets and critics view Dylan's primary cultural contribution to be one to American poetry. That shouldn't be controversial considering Dylan himself once said, "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem. Anything I can't sing or anything that's too long to be a poem, I call a novel.” He troubled the waters between genres, but he clearly understood the difference between them, and that his work spanned several. 
Why celebrate the "American song tradition" now? Is songwriting literature? Is Dylan a poet as well as musician? 
In some senses, today's announcement by the Nobel committee is about more than Dylan. If the committee, which has awarded prizes since 1901, is expanding how it defines literature and poetry, that has possible cultural implications and/or consequences. The decisions leading institutions in a field make can influence other institutions and organizations, formal and informal. To the positive, perhaps the committee's decision might signal a greater appreciation for literature's oral tradition, and even inspire a similar embrace of spoken word, slam, and hip hop, which have too long been marginalized by literary institutions. To the possibly challenging, perhaps it could inspire other grantmaking organizations that have historically assisted individuals who focus on a particular literary genre to focus on artists who work across multiple disciplines. 
This is to say, it's understandable that poets might have strong feelings about there being even fewer opportunities for poets than there are already. And, more, it's always legitimate for poets to ask questions about institutional actions that might impact the community of working poets, and how the public views and understands poetry.
I read her statement as an acknowledgment of the insecurities of the literary world: "If a songwriter can take the pot, then there's less treasure for the rest of us." And I do feel the sadness of so many of my dear friends in the art. One has ruefully compared our labors to scrimshaw . . . outdated, outmoded, a vanishing practice. The Nobel Prize in Literature has symbolized the public value of our craft. It's been a comfort, even for those of us who know full well we'll never make the short list.

But as I wrote on my Facebook feed yesterday, literature is a big canvas, and song lyrics are certainly an art of language. I'm happy that Bob Dylan's work was honored. I look forward to the day that hip-hop, stand-up, throat singing, and so many ancient and new forms receive international honors. I say this as someone who's a fairly old-fashioned poet. I know that the world of words is bigger than I am. As it should be.

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