Tag Archives: Nobel Prize for Literature

His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett, and Eliot

ROD MICKLEBURGH
October 15, 2016

In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Photo by Lucie McNeill

Photo by Lucie McNeill

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

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People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.

A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

You might also wish to read these stories on F&O:

No, Bob Dylan isn’t the first lyricist to win the Nobel, by Alex Lubet

A Bengali literary giant who probably wrote even more songs preceded Dylan’s win by over a century. Rabindranath Tagore, a wildly talented Indian poet, painter and musician, took the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

Are Bob Dylan’s songs “Literature?” by David McCooey

Dylan’s Nobel Prize shows up what the Swedish Academy has so far ignored in their award system: film, popular music, and the emerging forms of digital storytelling. Perhaps what this Nobel tells us more than anything is that “literature” or “poetry” are categories of our own making. To move beyond the page seems long overdue.

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Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.  His previous piece on F&O was “Feeling the Bern.” Excerpt:

The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!”

 

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.  Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Are Bob Dylan’s songs “Literature?”

By David McCooey, Deakin University 
October, 2016

Bob Dylan has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The media has reported on this surprising choice by asking musicians, poets, and writers if Dylan’s songs are indeed “literature”. Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting (1993), made it clear on Twitter that he didn’t think they were:

If you’re a ‘music’ fan, look it up in the dictionary. Then ‘literature’. Then compare and contrast.

Bob Dylan playing Toronto, 1980. Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin via Flickr/Wikipedia

Bob Dylan playing Toronto, 1980. Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin via Flickr/Wikipedia

So are song lyrics a type of literature or, more specifically, poetry? The English poet Glyn Maxwell thinks not. In On Poetry (2011), he writes that “Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence”. Inhabiting silence makes poetry the harder and more important art form. Music, Maxwell writes, makes lyrics seem better than when they appear on the whiteness of the page.

But many don’t share Maxwell’s position. The critic Christopher Ricks has long championed Dylan’s song lyrics as poetry. In Dylan’s Vision of Sin (2004), he places Dylan’s songs in a poetic tradition that includes Tennyson and Donne.

Both Maxwell and Ricks, however, ignore an ancient link between poetry and music. Ancient Greek poetry, such as the epics of Homer or the lyric poems of Sappho, were accompanied by a stringed musical instrument called the lyre. It is from the lyre that we get the words “lyric” and “lyrics”.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the Swedish Academy drew attention to this ancient link between poetry and music when announcing its decision. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, pointed out that Homer and Sappho were “meant to be performed, often together with [musical] instruments”.

There are more recent examples, of course. English lute songs of the 16th century set poetry to music. In the 19th century, Schubert and other composers wrote lieder (German “art songs”), which also set poetry to music.

But how accurate is it to compare Dylan with Sappho and composers of art song? Dylan belongs to the tradition of blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley (the commercial American songwriters of the first half of the 20th century). He was central in the rise of “Americana”, a mix of folk and popular American musical forms that have little to do with “elite” musical forms such as opera and lieder.

Dylan has avoided taking on the mantle of “poet”. He once described himself as a “song ’n’ dance man”. Nevertheless, he famously took the name of a Welsh poet (Dylan Thomas) for his pseudonym. (Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman.) In addition, his songs, as Ricks and others have pointed out, take in numerous literary references, as seen in his many often-playful allusions to the Bible. And while his breakthrough in the early 1960s was as a “folk” singer, Dylan quickly became famous for the complexity and “poetic” quality of his lyrics.

So, do Dylan’s lyrics survive as poetry in the “silence” of the page? You can find out for yourself by reading the 960 pages of Dylan’s The Lyrics: 1961-2012 (2014). And you can compare his work with those of other song writers – such as Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, and Paul McCartney – whose lyrics have been published in book form.

Certainly, many people would argue that the lyrics of Dylan’s classic songs from the 1960s do survive as poetry. The strange, surreal, and often funny lyrics from Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) arguably represent his peak as a lyricist.

Visions of Johanna, from Blonde on Blonde, is a good example of the “literary” Dylan.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

Visions of Johanna contains some of Dylan’s most celebrated lyrics, and you can see why. It clearly works on the page.

But should we make the printed page the standard of what counts as “literature”? Bob Dylan’s songs are multimedia things. Lyrics are to songs what scripts are to plays or films. We can read scripts for enjoyment, and to better understand the productions they come from. But to pretend that the play or film is somehow secondary is clearly a mistake. Equally, we can’t ignore the music and performances that accompany Dylan’s song lyrics.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize shows up what the Swedish Academy has so far ignored in their award system: film, popular music, and the emerging forms of digital storytelling.

Perhaps what this Nobel tells us more than anything is that “literature” or “poetry” are categories of our own making. To move beyond the page seems long overdue.

The ConversationCreative Commons

David McCooey is a Professor of Writing and Literature at Deakin University This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related on F&O:

No, Bob Dylan isn’t the first lyricist to win the Nobel, by Alex Lubet

A Bengali literary giant who probably wrote even more songs preceded Dylan’s win by over a century. Rabindranath Tagore, a wildly talented Indian poet, painter and musician, took the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

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Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

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Alice Munro, Master

By Deborah Jones

F&O Munro discard

Alice Munro (Publisher handout. Photo copyright Derek Shapton © 2013)

Alice Munro, “master of the contemporary short story,” is the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, the organization announced.

The Canadian writer, who at 82 claimed early this year that she had retired – really, this time –  was born in Ontario and lived most of her life in the kind of small Central Canadian towns where she set her short stories. She spent some years on Canada’s West Coast, and opened a book store with her first husband Jim Munro in Victoria, Munro Books – which this year marked its 50th anniversary.

Following her previous declarations of retirement, Munro continued to craft stories and publish books. But after a bout of health problems and the death last spring of her second husband, Gerald Fremlin, she said firmly that she would stop writing, and get out and about in her community. She also told a writer from the New York Times she had stopped worrying about aging – a preoccupation of many of her stories. “There’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s better than being dead. I feel that I’ve done what I wanted to do, and that makes me feel fairly content.”

The Nobel organization said of her work:

Munro is primarily known for her short stories and has published many collections over the years. Her works include Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006) and Too Much Happiness (2009). The collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) became the basis of the film Away from Her from 2006, directed by Sarah Polley. Her most recent collection is Dear Life (2012).

Munro is acclaimed for her finely tuned storytelling, which is characterized by clarity and psychological realism. Some critics consider her a Canadian Chekhov. Her stories are often set in small town environments, where the struggle for a socially acceptable existence often results in strained relationships and moral conflicts – problems that stem from generational differences and colliding life ambitions. Her texts often feature depictions of everyday but decisive events, epiphanies of a kind, that illuminate the surrounding story and let existential questions appear in a flash of lightning. 

F&O Munro book

Dear Life, Alice Munro’s latest book

Munro is the daughter of a school teacher mother and  fox farmer father, and the mother of three daughters (of whom two survive). She was born in an age when women, and in particular women from rural Canada, were discouraged from standing in the spotlight. Last year she told her fiction editor at the New Yorker – which published many of her stories – “I was brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was “call attention to yourself,” or ‘think you were smart.'”

Times changed, for Canadian women and for Munro.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further reading:

Alice Munro biography on her page at Penguin, her publisher

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