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Dylan, Kipling and the Nobel Prize for pop lit

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: October 29, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2016

Controversy over the decision to award the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan early this month has given way to controversy over the balladeer's apparent refusal to respond to it. The Swedish Academy has been unable to get him on the phone and there is wide speculation that he won't show up to receive the honor. Some called it an arrogant snub. Others called it a principled stand on a par with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's rejection of the prize in 1964.

Sartre made no secret of his reasons for declining the laurel. He considered it a trophy of acquisition brandished by capitalism, specifically capital that originated with Alfred Nobel's invention of dynamite, and bestowed on artists the establishment considered their property. Sartre was not going to be acquired for mere money, not through money made by those he considered warmongers, at any rate.

But Dylan had made no comment until Friday when, according to the BBC, he called the Swedish Academy to say the prize "left me speechless" and adding,"I appreciate the honour so much." He also told a British newspaper that he would try to pick up the award in person.

Returning to the first half of the brouhaha, we consider what led the learned committee to select him. Americans of a certain age are, I'll bet, largely jubilant. Internationally, there's been much griping. Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh ("Trainspotting") admitted to being a Dylan fan, but said of the Nobel pick, "this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies." I'm not sure I can form a leak-proof argument that would contradict Welsh's opinion.

One complaint is that song lyrics shouldn't count as literature since music is the primary vehicle for the art form. Can the words be separated from the tune? A couple of thoughts here. First, as one who reads music I contend that Bach's fugues and Chopin's preludes are, in their written form, indeed literature. So probably are the more elegant arithmetic formulas, though I can't be sure, since I can't tell the different between a divisor and a denominator without looking it up. But mathematicians have their own Nobel Prize. I don't see a composer of purely instrumental music getting the award ever.

Second, Dylan's compositional efforts, rooted in folk music, are pretty derivative. That's not meant to be dismissive; we all love such music. Brahms yearned to write like that. But looking at his sentences and the notes separately, I'd say the words of "Blowin' in the Wind" are probably what cause us to remember the tune, not the other way around. So, in Dylan's case, the lyrics are fair fodder for belle lettres.

In the long list of Nobel laureates, there have been almost no popular writers, in the sense that the word "popular" is applied to Dylan. For English-speakers, at least, a few prizes have gone to writers whose work, in some form, remains strong and current 50 years or a century later: George Bernard Shaw (1925), Pearl Buck (1938), Ernest Hemingway (1954), John Steinbeck (1962) and a U.S. citizen who didn't actually write in English, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978).

Then there is a short list of masters who aren't necessarily at the top of the general public's favorites' list, but whose work will probably endure well into this millennium: William Butler Yeats (1923), Thomas Mann (1929), William Faulkner (1949), Elias Canetti (1981) and Luigi Pirandello (1934).

But there are also laureates whose leaves have long since withered. How many people can recite from memory any of the poems of Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931)? Or name the major works of Wladyslaw Reymont (1924), Knut Pedersen Hamsun (1920), Carl Spitteler (1919), Karl Gjellerup (1917) or Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam (1916)? They were probably all very good writers, but their work found its resonance with their time rather than the long haul.

The closest Nobel pick to Dylan is Rudyard Kipling, who received the prize (graciously) in 1907. Kipling's poems, many of which are titled "ballads," have often been set to popularly-sung songs. I'll wager that most of the readers of this column know the melody that goes with "We're poor little lambs who've lost our way, Baa! Baa! Baa!"

No, Kipling didn't write the tune and the words are kind of silly. But those words live. Thrive, in fact. Last year's film version of "The Jungle Book" made a billion dollars in the U.S. And any child can tell you how the elephant got its trunk.

Most important, Rudyard, like Bob, has had his words become part of the language. If you can go a week without quoting both of them you're a better man than I am. You may call that a low-brow approach to literature, but I think there's something awesome about writing that endures like granite.

 

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