5 Questions for . . .
Michael Sohn, Composition Instructor, Long Island University Brooklyn
Dolores Hayden, Poet, Professor of American Studies (Emerita), Yale University
Morgan Leigh Davies, Writer, Co-host of Overinvested Podcast
Judy Plott, English Teacher (retired), Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
Simon Perchik, Poet
Bill Plott, English and Drama Teacher (retired), Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
3. a. Do you think the Nobel committee did a service to literature in awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature?
b. Where do performance or slam poetry and live, personal storytelling events, such as The Moth, fit in the literary landscape?
a. A prize is a prize. It is tautological like that.
I’ve never understood the importance we give to the Nobel. Yes, the prize can (should?) recognize — and publicize — a writer we would not have heard of otherwise. Yes, famous Dylan has profoundly affected American culture (in as much as we can talk of a coherent or unitary American culture). Yes, he wrote songs and not poems. Yes, poetry is song and from the very beginning of the Western tradition. Yes and yes and no and yes. In any case, I don’t see how Dylan winning changes anything, nor do I see how Dylan not winning would have changed anything.
b. Stéphane Mallarmé’s preface to the first version of “A Throw of the Dice” talks at length about what happens once we admit that poetry has always been visible and spatial. In fact, he claims that the “newness” of his text is nothing other than a different “spacing of reading”. True, he excuses the strangeness of “A Throw” in terms of performance, describing the layout variously as “some spiritual exact staging” [“quelque mise en scène spirituelle exacte”] and, for those who want to read the text out loud, “a musical score”. But, before he arrives at such excuses, he sees that the lack of audible traits normally provided by the metrical line leads instead to something purely visible and spatial, what he calls, with late 19th century flourish, “prismatic subdivisions of the Idea” [“et, comme il ne s’agit pas, ainsi que toujours, de traits sonores réguliers ou vers — plutôt, de subdivisions prismatiques de l’Idée”].
I realize that I have not answered the question.
a. No. The music carries the lyrics.
b. Poetry slams and storytelling events encourage all poets and fiction writers to be aware of the performance possibilities of their work. Skilled participants can raise the bar for all of us by showing how to deploy the human voice as an instrument. They increase public interest in shorter narratives of all genres.
a. Based on some Google digging, news broke of the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women the day before the Nobel committee announced Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. Living in England during the final months of the presidential election was a surreal experience, simultaneously distancing and embarrassing: all of the Americans in Oxford seemed to be united by a sense of mutual shame. But October 12th was surely the nadir of the campaign, which made the announcement of Dylan’s Nobel the next day an almost hallucinatory relief: somebody had something nice to say about America! It was a beautiful fall day in Oxford and I cannot recall any of my fellow English graduate students expressing skepticism about the award; everybody just laughed.
Most “serious” artists and critics are quick to remind people how little they care about awards, or to explain how little awards matter. It is impossible to select a single “best picture” of the year, and even if it were the Academy always seems to get it wrong; the Booker Prize committee is hopelessly political; the Grammys are a joke. The Nobel Prize for Literature may carry significantly more prestige than any of these awards, but all of them have the same practical effect: to raise the profile of the winners. The Nobel, of course, also comes with a significant cash prize. Bob Dylan needs neither exposure nor money. But I can’t help but feel that all of the people who made this argument in the wake of the announcement were speaking somewhat disingenuously: Americans have been clamoring for Philip Roth to win the Nobel for years, and while Philip Roth may not be as rich as Bob Dylan, he doesn’t exactly need money or exposure at this stage in his life, either.
So if people are angry about Dylan winning the Prize they are angry for a less noble reason. There are valid reasons to oppose his inclusion, but it seems to me that the Committee was making a deliberate statement by choosing a beloved American songwriter in 2016, one year after rewarding the harrowing efforts of Svetlana Alexievich. Dylan was not an anodyne choice—he is a political writer, and his selection certainly stirred debate—but he was a choice designed to inspire pleasure and temporary relief. Not all populism is bad.
a. I don’t have a problem with Bob Dylan winning The Prize, especially considering some others who have won and many who have not. Poetry opens up, after all, and for those in a perpetual hurry, can have the benefit of being brief. It also has played an important political role in places where traditional forms of writing and broadcasting are not available, or not free, or not trusted.
Not sure. Songs are simple poems and nothing is wrong with that. Same for slam poetry.
a. A Globe headline: "GET SICK, GET WELL, WIN YOURSELF A NOBEL." I may know more Dylan lyrics than most, but I'm not sure. Anybody who wrote poems in the late 60s (I'm embarrassed to say late 60s, but there it is) who says she didn't read Baudelaire and Rimbaud is forgetful or worse. Dylan's best lyrics, which can be wonderful, are also derivative. But they're wonderful. I don't know. But really:
...Shakespeare, he's in the alley,
With his pointed shoes and his bells...
Oh, why not. As Dylan said in an interview, he does hit notes Caruso never did.