Posts Tagged ‘Nobel Prize in Literature’

Pop Culture Wins in 2016

Pop culture wins in more than one area in 2016.

In October when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, I questioned its appropriateness. Wasn’t the creation of a separate category more in order than pronouncing Dylan’s lyrics an accomplishment in world literature considering that songwriting spans the realms of music and literature? I recognize that poetry no longer has a general readership and that most Americans’ exposure  to poetry today comes solely through song lyrics. I have no elitist quarrel with this state of affairs, for clearly poetry has its roots in an oral tradition. Yet the gushing of some authors such as Salman Rusdie and Joyce Carol Oates over Dylan’s award struck me as excessive and unwarranted. The Academy justified the award because Dylan “had created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”–a peculiar rationale, which seemed to justify a new category–songwriting–not a prize for outstanding accomplishment in literature.

I wondered if I was missing something. Did others see literary merit where I had only heard successful popular folk music that I had enjoyed while growing up? I wondered if the lyrics would impress me as great poetry when I read them on the printed page. I determined to read all of Dylan’s lyrics and to formulate my own judgment. With this purpose in mind, I ordered the 679-page volume of The Lyrics 1961-2012.

It has taken me two months to read the entire book. By page 100, I was bored. Granted, there are some clever lines scattered here and there; but I didn’t see enough meat on the bones to pronounce this great poetry. I struggled to finish the book, only able to read a few pages at a time. Much is monotonous, boring, silly, lame, and the usual mournful love laments. The lyrics are dependent on refrain and repetition and are often rather banal. Dylan is a genius in use of rhyme, but on the printed page they come across as too forced. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” of course, stands out as rising above the ordinary lyric and reads well as a poem. Much of what I read is pure doggerel, light verse à la limerick. Did the Academy members actually read all of the complete lyrics?  How did they stay awake for the duration?

About page eighty-five the language is becoming more political, and in “One Too Many Mornings,” Dylan creates one of his memorable refrains: For I’m one too many mornings/And a thousand miles behind. A good example of his word wizardry that everyone enjoys occurs in “All I Really Want to Do:” I don’t want to meet your kin/Make you spin or do you in/Or select you or dissect you/Or inspect you or reject you. Or these unforgettable lines in “My Black Pages:” Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now. Of the intermittent lyrics that I consider crossing the border into what may be termed literary in the canonical sense is “Chimes of Freedom” in which the one-line, end-of-stanza refrain is not overdone and the line Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales/for the disrobed faceless forms . . . possesses the fresh, vivid imagery, assonance and consonance my senses love in fine poetry.

But moments of verbal virtuosity are lost  in pages of verse that are flat and trite. There are too many to choose from, but I’ll settle on this from “I Shall Be Free No. 10:” Now they asked me to read a poem/At the sorority sisters’ home/I got knocked down and my head was swimmin’/I wound up with the Dean of Women/Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it/Hope I don’t blow it. Ogden Nash could do better. Dylan’s gymnastics with rhyme augurs the rise of rap and hip hop at the end of the twentieth century.

Half-way through the book, I began to note poems that seemed to transcend the jingle-jangle of merely a song lyric. “Tin Angels,” “Golden Loom,” and “Romance in Durango” (a bilingual ballad) have glimmers of more substance, and “Too much of Nothing” has the clever line evocative of Dylan’s social commentary. Then I rejoice, hearing the sounds of my favorite song lyrics in “Forever Young,” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Am I swayed by memories of listening to these songs, or are they also good, if not great poems? The Academy’s consensus apparently was that Dylan’s body of work rose above the trite and time-worn found in love ballads and folk songs. I am not so sure, especially, when I come to this final verse in “Where Teardrops Fall” toward the end of the volume: Roses are red, violets are blue/And time is beginning to crawl/I just might have to come see you/Where teardrops fall. Sometimes Dylan runs out of steam in playful language and his last lines bomb into vacuity. Is that his intention? Laughing at his own verbal play? Here’s another ending from “Dignity:” Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity. Here I hit the bottom of an empty well.

We have another figure of pop culture rising to prominent heights this year: Donald J. Trump, impresario of  the TV reality show “The Apprentice.” Pop culture has colored the nation’s judgment, taste, manners, and morals. So should I really wonder at the Swedish Academy’s wisdom in selecting Bob Dylan as recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature?  Can the world at large discern quality in literature any better than the general electorate of the United States can distinguish character and fitness for office among political candidates? Pop culture has triumphed in all spheres of life. Pop culture is largely entertainment and is supposed to be fun. I don’t fault it for being that, but I do fault those who are unable to appreciate that dealing with important national and global issues is no laughing matter.

 

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In Praise of Wisława Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska July 2, 1923 - February 1, 2012

“The world is astonishing, no matter what else we can say about it.”

You may have never heard of Wisława Szymborska or her poetry. I am writing this to spread her fame a little wider. This Polish poet, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, died in her sleep on February 1, 2012. She was 88 years young. How fitting her going, for she wrote in her poem “I’m Working on the World”or dying in her sleep as the desirable way to go, comparing it to music in the dark. She concludes this poem with a sardonic twist, typical of her poetry, describing the rest of life as playing a Bach fugue on a saw.

That wry humor suffuses her whole body of work in which she observes the extraordinary and the ironic in the familiar objects that she never finds ordinary. From plates and fans in a museum, to plants, to clouds, to an onion, everything around her astonishes. Her own penchant for poetry, she finds amusing as she writes in “In Praise of My Sister,” a sister who doesn’t write poems. In another poem “Poetry Reading,” she reflects that a boxing match draws a bigger crowd. She imagines that the snoring man in the first row of her poetry audience is dreaming that his wife is still alive and is baking him a tart. At that point, the poets reading to a room of twelve people and eight empty seats.

I love the way Szymborska uses concrete images; I love the way she thinks of things I would never think of. Her poetry teems with her playful look at subjects. Who else would write a poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself. ” In “Hitler’s First Photograph,” she pictures him full of milk and his growing up to be a tenor at the Vienna Opera House, a doctor, a priest, and marrying the burgermeister’s daughter. Even the adult monster was once a cute little baby. The image jars the reader’s sensibilities.

Szymborska’s humor can be black, but her understatements always astound and pack such a wallop, that I wish I could have written a poem nearly as good as her poem that I just finished reading. One of her poems that sticks long in my memory (and there are too many to choose from) is “The End and the Beginning,” possibly the best poem ever written on the subject of war because of its powerful understatement.  The poem begins with the homely statement that someone always has to tidy up after a war as if the task is a housewifely duty and ends by dropping the grisly matter-of-fact observation that rubble has to be shoved to the roadsides so the carts can be loaded with corpses. This is the type of startling, surprise tour de force that frequently concludes her poems.

In her Nobel Prize lecture I discovered the reason why I like poetry more than politics. She states: “Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating, ‘I don’t know.'” Politicians are always telling us they have the answers; they hold the truth. Szymborska contends “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’. Each poem is an effort to answer a question. She continues in her lecture: “But any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well-known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.”

She bases her poetic credo on the belief that the world is astonishing; nothing is obvious. She writes, “But in the language of poetry . . . nothing is usual or normal . Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it . . . . And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in the world.” Like many of her poems, she cannot resist ending her lecture with an understatement: “It looks as though poets will always have their work cut out for them.”

I recommend you start exploration of Wisława Szymborska with Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. It includes all the poems in View with a Grain of Sand and also the complete text of her 1996 Nobel lecture. A new collection, Here, contains poetry she wrote since she won the Nobel Prize. She also has some unpublished poems in manuscript form that were not ready for publication at the time of her death.  The collaborative translation by Stanislaw Barańczak, Professor of Polish Language and Literature at Harvard and a Polish poet himself, and Clare Cavanagh, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University, is so good that, as far as I am concerned, the poems could have been written originally in English.

Two interesting notes about her fame in Poland: her poem “Nothing Twice” set to music became a popular song. The Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski is said to have been inspired by her poem “Love at First Sight” in the making of Red, from The Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red–three wonderful films.

I wish my mother were still alive. If she were, I would ask her to read aloud in Polish to me all of Szymborska’s poetry and ask for her comments on them. Maybe I should write a poem in which I imagine Alice Dzierzgowska doing this?