Hey! Mr. Nobel Laureate, play a song for me

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, October 15, 2016

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Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The reactions to this news, I’ve noticed, seem to fall into one of three camps. There are those who think it’s a legitimate choice, those who think that songwriting isn’t a legitimate literary form and those who take the opportunity to make a joke about it. About the third group, I have nothing to say. I don’t know what they think except that they saw an opportunity to make fun of something. Some of their comments were funny, but they are easily disregarded, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Joy Carrico

Joy Carrico

My initial reaction was squarely in the second camp. “What?!?” I said out loud. He’s not a literary figure, he’s a singer/songwriter – although some might argue that the sounds emitting from him are not singing. He’s a songwriter!

Then I remembered something one of my college professors said. “If Percy Bysshe Shelley (English romantic poet in the early 19th Century) were alive today, he would be a rock star.” He made the point that Shelley wanted to reach as many people as possible. At the time, being a poet was the societal equivalent of today’s rock stars, so, he was a poet.

The more I think about it, the more I see the sense of this choice. Dylan has had a profound influence on the 20th century. His folksy protest songs of the early ’60s took the world by storm. He has been around for more than 50 years successfully writing songs and putting them out into the world. Since the Nobel Prize for Literature is typically awarded to someone as a recognition of their entire body of work, he certainly qualifies as having a long and prosperous career.

But does a songwriter qualify for a literature prize?

Well, there are playwrights on the list. A play is typically not meant to be read, but acted out on a stage. Is a song so very different? It isn’t meant to be read, but performed and listened to.

The press release said he created “poetic expressions.” So, it would make sense to regard Dylan’s work as falling most closely into the literary genre of poetry.

If we look at poetry and compare it to songwriting, there are marked similarities. The original Greek word for poetry basically means “I create,” and the word for poem is simply “the thing created.” What we mean today by the word poetry has evolved from this extremely broad “created thing” to “something incomprehensible that almost no one reads by choice.”

Poems and songs contain many of the same elements, including rhythmn, rhyme and a repeated refrain. Poetry predates the written word. Ancient poems were memorized and recited, often accompanied by music, as a means of storytelling and passing down oral history, as well as other purposes. There is even an argument that poetry has its origins in song. At any rate, the original delivery of poetry was through a performance. So, like the song and the play, the poem was originally meant to be performed.

And looking at Dylan’s lyrics, I cannot deny the poetic quality of:

“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.” (Lyrics from “Mr. Tambourine Man”)

I don’t think the objection to Dylan is really because he’s a songwriter.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is arguably the most prestigious award a writer can receive. It is the pinnacle of the most distinguished, the definitive proof that what this individual provides is the highest of highbrow stuff.

I think, as regular humans, we expect to have never heard of the Nobel Prize recipients, except for the occasional Peace Laureate. In the last 20 years, the Nobel committee has honored such literary giants as Wislawa Szymobrska, Dario Fo, Jos Saramago, Gao Xingjian, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, Imre Kert sz, John M. Coetzee and Elfriede Jelinek. They are such giants of literature that I’ve never heard of any of them – they must be too big for the human eye to see. In fact, of 113 recipients over the past 109 years (including Mr. Dylan), I had experienced in some way the work of 21 of them, I had heard of, but never read anything by, another 15; and I had never heard of 78 of them.

And in my mind that’s how it should be. I’m not nearly brainy enough to be familiar with the works of a Nobel Laureate.

But Dylan is not highbrow. First of all, we’ve heard of him, and even know some of his stuff. His roots are in folk music. Folk is the opposite of refinement. His songs often contain colloquial phrases such as “there’s nothin’ I wish to be ownin.'” He plays a harmonica and wears blue jean jackets. He’s gruff and unkempt. He has a reputation for being vulgar, not at all the quintessential Nobel Laureate. Picturing him in a tuxedo accepting the award seems out of place, like a bum at a cocktail party.

So I applaud the Nobel committee for going outside the twisted reach of crazy snobbery and picking someone we’ve all heard of. Despite my intial reaction, I think Dylan, as a songwriter, is qualified for the award and that he deserves it. I hope he shakes things up in Sweden, just like he’s been doing his entire career.

And the best part of all of this is that my status as an egghead has just rocketed up, because I have Nobel Prize winning literature stuck in my head. Before you know it, I’ll be curling up with the latest page-turner by Elfriede Jelinek.

Joy Carrico is a graphic artist for the Messenger. She doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

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