Thursday, October 13, 2016

Positively Oslo

I trust my first response as an honest one: when I read this morning that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I let out an involuntary oh my God , an exclamation not of delighted surprise but of bewildered dismay.

Likening Dylan to Homer and Sappho, as the secretary of the Swedish Academy does, is, for me, not especially convincing. What’s wrong with speaking of Dylan in relation to, say, Woody Guthrie? Isn’t Dylan better viewed in the company of American singers and songwriters? Oh — but this is the Nobel Prize in Literature. And Dylan is “poetic.” Like, uh, Homer and Sappho.

Comparisons aside, this award suggests to me that the Swedish Academy’s choice is a bid for popular relevance, something of a stunt, as when the Oxford English Dictionary announces that it’s added moobs and YOLO to its word hoard. The language of the Academy’s brief Dylan biography suggests a preoccupation with celebrity and media culture: “Dylan has the status of an icon.” That’s about the dumbest thing one might say to characterize someone working in the realm of the imagination. But the Academy’s choice at least means that fewer people will be greeting the announcement of the year’s laureate by asking “Who?”

For me the real news in this year’s announcement is that the Swedish Academy has again passed John Ashbery by. He’s now eighty-nine.

[A close second to icon : living legend .]

comments: 2

Fresca said...

Or like when they gave Obama the Peace Prize before he'd earned it (, and which he has yet to do).

Chris said...

I've never liked the idea of calling Dylan "a poet." Granted that much of what we now read as ancient or medieval poetry was originally sung or at least recited to music, composing the lyrics to a pop song is a different art than modern "poetry." Do the best of Dylan's lyrics stand on their own on the page? Maybe, but that would be a really terrible way to read them.

In spite of that, and in spite of the inevitable piffle from the Nobel Academy's announcement, I like this choice. It recognizes that Dylan has accomplished something original and creative with language, an inherent part of which is how he combined words with music. (Many of "his" melodies, of course, are traditional or generic, but the artistry is in the employment of them.) I think it makes sense to honor "Visions of Johanna," "Desolation Row," "All along the Watchtower," and the like as having some of the same qualities that we admire in writing that is conventionally accepted as "literary."