Look out kid

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Since Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize for Literature, here’s an old music video with some words to open discussion:

(I’m in China for ten days — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai — so posting may be a bit erratic…)



87 Comments

  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

    I thought the Nobel Prize for Literature had lost some luster with obviously political choices through the years. Now it’s lost all luster, as far as I’m concerned. They might as well have given it to Mother Goose.

    [(myl) Mother Goose would be a great choice, in my opinion, except for the handicap of not actually being a real person.]

  2. David P said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 8:22 pm

    Well, tastes differ. Dylan is, above all, a humorist, and he’s gotten better over the years. He is also a master at what Yvor Winters called “reference to a non-existent plot,” specific details that imply a plot that isn’t quite given, with an obscure motivation or meaning. Winters didn’t like it for poetry – “A more direct and economical convention seems to me preferable” – but it certainly works in song.

  3. John said,

    October 13, 2016 @ 8:38 pm

    You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
    He deserves it just for that.

  4. Rubrick said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 12:25 am

    @David P:
    Well, tastes differ. Dylan is, above all, a humorist.

    The second half of that certainly illustrates the first. I think most Dylan fans (which I number myself among) would consider him, first and foremost, not as a humorist, but as an extraordinarily creepy presence in a Victoria’s Secret commercial.

  5. peterv said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 12:45 am

    @John:

    Dylan was not the first to use that metaphor. Here is Time magazine on 18 March 1957:

    “There is usually one communist who knows the way the wind is blowing long before the official weather vanes swing into line.”

    https://web.archive.org/web/20111019203940/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,809194,00.html

  6. PickeringPast said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 1:34 am

    Many say Roth and DeLillo, among others, are US writers more deserving. Maybe so. Tastes differ.

    These lines heard many years ago hit me hard on first listen and continue to affect me:
    Wlliam Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
    With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger…

    You who philosophize decide if this was an ‘ill-conceived nostalgia choice’ for ‘senile gibbering hippies’ or not. I’ve listened to Dylan’s music for more than 50 years. I saw him live backed by The Band. His songs still have meaning to me. I’m glad he got it.

  7. philip said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 6:17 am

    I love Dylan, but as a singer/songwriter. There is too much rhyme, though, in his lyrics for them to be considered as poetry, and the one prose book of his that I have read was extremely badly written. Give him the Nobel Prize for Music by all means, but keep the literature prize for the writers. What next, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to the best drug-dealer?

  8. Brett said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 7:25 am

    I am a great fan of Dylan’s songs, but not of his singing. His poetry (and, really, song lyrics are the only kind of popular poetry today) is not great without a tune, but with melody they can be amazing (although more so when covered by others than when performed by Dylan himself, IMO*). To claim they have “too much rhyme” to be poetry? That’s absurd.

    Writing an abbreviation like “IMO” now feels inappropriately casual, because I associate it with texting–even though I’ve been using in in online communications since before text messages were a thing.

  9. philip said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 7:33 am

    Brett – do you read much modern poetry? There is very little overt rhyme in modern high-brow poetry; half-rhymes and assonance are preferred. Full rhyme is looked on as a little vulgar. As for popular poetry, that is a bit of an oxymoron. Songs are songs, and poems are poems, and doggerel (which does rhyme) is doggerel. But well done for picking up on the absurd line that I put in for the purpose of getting a response.

  10. Dan Curtin said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 9:07 am

    Maybe he deserves the Nobel just for inspiring other artists: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUQDzj6R3p4

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    peterv: someone else had the approximate concept first, but he expressed it in more concise-and-memorable wording. Which one might fairly call a “literary” sort of skill.

    See also Louis MacNeice’s lines “The glass [i.e. barometer] is falling hour by hour , the glass will fall forever / But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.” Presumably the underlying thought (phenomena such as bad weather exist independently of our measuring instruments and we cannot avoid them by refusing to look at our measuring instruments) was not original to him, but it’s a memorably-worded expression of the thought.

  12. Rodger C said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    Winters didn’t like it for poetry

    Randall Jarrell: “Yvor Winters writes as if the last 300 years happened, but not to him.”

    There is very little overt rhyme in modern high-brow poetry

    Well, tough. There’s a lot of overt rhyme in Karl Shapiro’s poetry, and he memorably detested Dylan. (I think he was just sick to death of his students asking him, “But don’t you just love …?”)

  13. Adam said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    Surely Weird Al’s palindromic homage deserves a mention here.

  14. CuConnacht said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

    I think most high-school literary magazines would have been willing to publish Dylan’s lyrics as poetry, but not many university literary magazines. “How many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned” seems exactly high-school level, for example.

  15. Alyssa said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

    I understand why song lyrics are compared to poetry, and certainly there are a lot of similarities, but I think it’s a futile exercise to read written-down lyrics AS poetry. They aren’t meant to exist independently of the tune/melody. In my experience, lyrics that I find deeply meaningful in the context of their song come across banal or nonsensical when written out. And the converse is true too – poems are rarely improved by being set to music. They’re just different mediums.

  16. Philip said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 3:49 pm

    Roger C: I wasn’t saying absence of overt rhyme in high-brow poetry was a good thing, just that it was a thing. As Alyssa says, comparing lyrics to poetry is akin to comparing oranges (which apparently have no rhyme either) to apples.

  17. empty said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

    True story: On hearing that X had composed a choral work using text from Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, Y exclaimed “But how? It’s not poetry!”

  18. empty said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

    (or “It’s not in verse!”, or words to that effect)

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    I think the right approach is perhaps to think of song lyrics as a different genre than poetry (while accepting that perhaps it was not always thus and there has been a separation that has developed over the centuries) but not thereby outside the ambit of “literature.” A certain amount of the backlash against Dylan’s prize is probably the result of bad memories of being stuck with a hip-and-groovy English teacher and/or fellow student who wanted to make class “relevant” by swapping in Dylan lyrics for poetry by some boring dead guy as if it were just a more up-to-date variant of the same thing. (I had a junior high school English teacher circa 1979 who instead decided to make class “relevant” with Billy Joel lyrics . . .)

    Saying that the work of such and such playwright works much better when performed on stage than when read silently to oneself as words on a page from a copy of the script is not to say that drama isn’t a form of capital-L Literature. Obviously, if by “literature” you mean “something of such-and-such reasonably demanding minimum level of aesthetic achievement” you’re going to exclude most song lyrics. And most plays. And most novels. And most poems. Etc.

    A potential empirical linguistics research project might be to figure out how “poetic license” works for song lyrics, although it might vary by genre of music of course. In other words, “poetic license” allows for certain deviations from the sort of syntax, word order, etc that you would consider mandatory in ordinary English prose without the result sounding unacceptably weird or incomprehensible when understood to be a poem. It’s not a free-for-all, but a special variety/register of English with its own grammatical conventions that in principle can be analyzed/described just as those of any other variety/register can be analyzed/described. It seems like what sort of deviations from normal prose syntax are still consistent with “syntactically well-formed” song lyrics might be a bit different from the sort that are consistent with “syntactically well-formed” poems.

  20. david said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 8:25 pm

    CuConnacht: Actually some high schools attempted to suppress “Blowing in the Wind” as too radical for young ears.

  21. JS said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 9:28 pm

    it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine / your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
    QED?

  22. JS said,

    October 14, 2016 @ 9:59 pm

    But more to the point, what Alyssa said about different mediums. You could think of song lyrics as poetry that can’t stand up on its own… or, if you like, of poetry as song lyrics in which punctuation and line-breaks serve as pale imitations of real music. Or, perhaps the better complementary position, as song lyrics in which the absence of music compels a higher degree of adherence to conventional modes of spoken expression…

  23. peterv said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 12:59 am

    A key aspect of poetry, which distinguishes it from most prose, is the sound it makes when read aloud. In good poetry this sound is intentional and has a connection to the meaning of the words. It is hard for words set to music to have a deliberate and specific sound since the musical setting overwhelms any sound of the words, as words. So I have trouble thinking of any song lyrics as poetry.

  24. GH said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 7:41 am

    @peterv:

    That sounds… extremely dubious. Song and poetry both use meter and rhythm, rhyme and alliteration, sound symbolism and word associations in order to support the meanings expressed. The skill and sophistication with which these techniques are employed vary, of course, but in general “words set to music” have a very deliberate and specific sound.

    (Of course, much good prose is also deliberate about the sound it makes when read aloud, so a better criterion of distinction is probably needed regardless.)

  25. A Hard Rain said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 10:12 am

    Here’s one contemporary poet’s take on Dylan’s win:

    http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/bob-dylan-song-poetry/

  26. A Hard Rain said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    And one contemporary critic’s:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/bob-dylan-s-greatest-champion-as-a-poet-triumph-of-genius-does-the-heart-good-1.2829658

  27. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    “How many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned” seems exactly high-school level, for example.

    Actually some high schools attempted to suppress “Blowing in the Wind” as too radical for young ears.

    True on both counts. I remember a friend quoting that line in an awed whisper, amazed that someone had said it out loud in public.

  28. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 15, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    I can’t really put my finger on it, but I believe there’s a definite qualitative difference between song lyrics and what we usually think of as poetry.

    I’m something of a connoisseur of lyrics, especially those from musical comedy, and I have a rather good-sized collection of lyrics, including those of Larry Hart, Yip Harburg, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Alan Jay Lerner, Johnny Mercer, and Ira Gershwin. Even the very best lines from those great lyricists (all of whom, I think, are far superior to Dylan in overall quality and in the broad range of subjects) don’t stand up very well when read aloud. Lyrics that seem like wonderful poetry when sung don’t sound nearly as good without the music.

    As Alyssa said, the reverse is also true. Copland’s settings of some of Emily Dickinson’s poems and settings of E.E. Cummings’ verse by Ned Rorem and others are interesting, but I’d much rather hear Julie Harris read Dickinson or Cummings read his own poetry.

    Song lyrics undoubtedly occupy their own little niche in the expanse of literature, just as does comic poetry (or comic monologue, for that matter). I’m a great lover of Ogden Nash, but I would never have dreamed of suggesting that he should be awarded the Nobel Prize.

    When I first saw that Dylan had won the prize, I thought it was a hoax. When I realized it was true, I was genuinely shocked.

    Once a year, the Nobel Prize committee has a chance to honor a great writer, with the whole world to choose from. The prize has often introduced a relatively unknown but deserving writer to a wider readership. It’s a rare opportunity that should not be wasted.

    If the prize had gone to Sondheim, for example, I wouldn’t have been quite as shocked, but I still would have felt that it the committee had wasted that opportunity this year. Giving it to Dylan seems to me an even greater waste.

  29. maidhc said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 2:20 am

    Song lyrics and poetry can be similar or not so similar. Steve Allen used to get great laughs by reading song lyrics like “Be-bop-a-lula” as poetry. I think “Be-bop-a-lula” is a great song, but as poetry not so great. But it’s not a long distance from “Be-bop-a-lula” to some of Kerouac’s poems, or Gwendolen Brooks’ “We real cool”.

    Much of Kipling’s poetry has been set as songs, most effectively I think by the late Peter Bellamy. I know Kipling is not fashionable any more. Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” was famously set by Schubert. And other great composers have set the works of leading poets. There’s a long list.

    But certain poems would be a challenge to set to music. There’s an area where song lyrics and poetry overlap, but the further you go out in either direction you get away from that.

    In Dylan’s case his starting point was the Anglo-American ballad tradition, which inspired many another poet–Browning for example. Add to that the African-American song tradition, the Beat generation, and then apply to contemporary life.

    I think it’s a bit unfair to take “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an example. It’s a very early piece and I don’t think he had completely found his voice. It’s very tailored to what the folk scene wanted at that time, and for that reason it’s a good piece of craftsmanship, but I don’t think it’s lasted well.

    I agree with Ralph Hickok that Yip Harburg, Cole Porter and the rest of the American Songbook lyricists were great at what they did, but their lyrics don’t work read aloud. They are not really connected to any poetic tradition; they mostly come out of musical theater.

    Dylan does have that connection to ballads and to the Beat poets that few others have. I was trying to think if anyone else from that generation was comparable. There were good songwriters–Carole King, Laura Nyro, Neil Young and many others. But the only person I think is up there with Dylan is probably Joni Mitchell, and she comes out of many of the same influences he does.

    Whether or not he should get the Nobel Prize I really don’t know, but Dylan is a unique figure.

  30. GH said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 4:25 am

    @Ralph Hickok:

    We don’t have to pretend that song lyrics and (modern) poetry are exactly the same thing to accept lyrics as part of literature. And if we accept that, isn’t it about time that one of the greats of the form was honored? After all, in terms of cultural presence it is clearly much more significant today than poetry, and nor can it be dismissed in its entirety as frivolous or trivial. So from that perspective I cannot see this as a missed opportunity.

    There’s always going to be arguments over the merits of each laureate, and about others that were passed over. De gustibus…

    @maidhc:

    You’re absolutely right that many poems have been set successfully to music. I first encountered most of William Blake’s poetry through musical interpretations, for example. Also although, as you say, Kipling may not be fashionable today (at least as a poet), he did in fact win the Nobel Prize.

  31. PickeringPast said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 4:59 am

    To my ears G.F. Handel’s Messiah successfully sets words to music.

  32. Laura Morland said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 5:26 am

    @PickeringPast

    The words of Handel’s Messiah were written by Charles Jennens as a libretto, not as a poem. Moreover, IMO* they do not read like poetry. See: http://opera.stanford.edu/iu/libretti/messiah.htm

    {It’s off topic, but for Messiah-lovers might be interested to learn that “Jennens was less than wholly approving of the musical setting:

    “I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called Messiah, which I value highly. He has made a fine entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.”}

    ______________
    See @Brett above

  33. Rubrick said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 5:55 am

    I don’t really understand the line of reasoning that Dylan’s lyrics aren’t deserving of a literary prize because they don’t stand up as (musicless) poetry. They weren’t written as poetry; they were written as songs. Hamlet is a pretty crappy novel, but most would concede that as a play it’s not half bad.

    (For what it’s worth, I do think some of Dylan’s songs stand up well without the music — “Mr. Tambourine Man” springs to mind among his better-known ones. I also happen to agree with Prof. Pullum that Paul Simon is superior as both a songwriter and a poet, but whatever; Mr. Dylan looms larger and is a damn fine wordsmith when he puts his mind to it.)

  34. Bathrobe said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 9:11 am

    It’s a pity that Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize. I believe we will look back and regret it. The problem is that it elevates him to the unassailable heights of the immortal. How can you appreciate a singer like Dylan when he’s placed upon such a lofty pedestal. It will ruin how people approach his work for all time. Instead of someone who speaks to you personally, he will become the object of official approval and adoration, beyond the clouds, high above the rest. The day Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize was a sad day for Dylan fans, the day their hero was taken away from them.

  35. leoboiko said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 9:24 am

    I’m baffled by how many people in a language log are claiming that songs are not poetry. Song is nothing less than the most ancient and traditional form of poetry, its most basic and essential form, the one most widespread cross-culturally, from hunter-gatherers in the Amazon to Serbo-Croatian epic singers to the ancient Chinese who compiled the Book of Odes and beyond. Poetry without music, read silently from a book, is a very modern and culturally-specific invention, and to claim that it’s the only real form of poetry strikes me as the temporal equivalent to to ethnocentrism. Chronocentrism. (In fact Plato defines music itself as composed of “three things: harmony, rhythm, and words” in the Republic; this integrated view persisted up until the Middle Ages at least.)

    Homer was meant to be performed, not read silently. Does this mean the Iliad isn’t poetry? You all would refuse Homer a literature prize? Is Shakespeare not literature because his words aren’t meant to “stand independently” of the stage (and I add that there’s already like half a dozen playwrights who won the Nobel)? Do you think ἀοιδοί, skáld, bards, troubadours, biwa hoshi etc. etc. all aren’t poets? Add a lyre, gusle, mandolin or folk guitar and the very same linguistic techniques defined as poetry—Jakobson’s projection of the signifier axis, something which was created for singing—suddenly stop being poetry? Madness.

  36. CuConnacht said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 9:28 am

    The words of Messiah are from the Authorized (King James) version of the Bible, and to me they do (as assembled by Jenner) read like poetry.

    For generations now what has most distinguished poetry from other forms of literature is that it is understood that poetry demands rereading and thought. Novels, short stories, plays, film scripts, and song lyrics are generally meant to be understood on first hearing/reading.

    There are of course novels, short stories, etc that are denser with meaning than the average and that can’t easily be taken in on first hearing/reading. Bergman movies, TS Eliot plays, etc.

    It seems to me that when Dylan’s lyrics are obscure, they are obscure not because they are dense with meaning but rather the opposite. The obscurities are there either out of laziness or in order to suggest density of meaning without there being much there there — a fairly common phenomenon in high school and university literary magazines.

    Reasonable people may differ on this, of course.

  37. GH said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    @Bathrobe:

    Some degree of canonization is inevitable for any artist whose work persists. (Poor Shakespeare!) But I don’t think the Nobel Prize looms so large over the work that it makes it impossible to appreciate on its own merits, on a scale smaller than the “immortal”. If you read Alice Munro or Toni Morrison or Saul Bellow, are you constantly aware of having to experience it as something “beyond the clouds, high above the rest” of literature?

  38. Miles Archer said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    I feel like I’m living in the world of Idiocracy. Prediction: Next year’s lit Nobel goes to Stan Lee.

  39. Y said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

    I don’t care all that much about the Nobel, but I would have enjoyed it if they gave it to a deserving rapper before they gave it to Dylan.

  40. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    If you were to defer to the judgment of the Nobel committee, the only English-language poets of the last century worthy to rank with Yeats and Eliot were Walcott and Heaney (and possibly Kipling, although I don’t know if his poetry as opposed to his prose was the primary reason for his prize). It is no disrespect to Messrs. and Heaney to say that’s not probably the judgment anyone primarily focused on English-language poetry would reach, even if you were to exclude from consideration those who died young (a problem for Nobel eligibility but not for general fame and canonicity).

    When you get to an even more marginal subgenre of literature, whoever they pick will no doubt inherently be even more arbitrary. But Dylan makes sense because even if you want to argue for the superior literary quality of other lyricists to him: a) the whole passionate if unedifying fight about whether lyrics for The Sort of Music the Kids Were Listening To might count as some species of High Art started with him; and b) he has influenced approximately 100% of all others who have, for good or for ill (often the latter!) tried to write lyrics in a popular-music genre with some sort of self-conscious literary ambition. Although he probably didn’t influence Dee Dee Ramone, who was occasionally capable of a short bit of intuitive Imagism (“You by the phone / You all alone / It’s a long way back to Germany”) that arguably stands up well with the early work of Pound (who never got the Nobel).

  41. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

    And apropos of some of the discussion above re the distance between poetry and song, consider Pound’s assertion that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance [and] poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”

  42. Roger Lustig said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

    Genres, genres…

    I, for one, would much rather hear Schubert’s song cycles than read Wilhelm Müller’s poetry “cold.” Ditto for Schumann and Eichendorff. OK-to-very-good lyric poetry that became the basis for the founding masterworks of a musical art form.

    More extreme: Agee’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and Barber’s setting of same. What’s “poetry”? What’s a lyric? Did Barber ever set a text to music better than that?

    Finally, I think A hard rain’s gonna fall stands up pretty well to silent or spoken reading–and it’s based on a ballad, no less!

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    It seems like the traditional view of song lyrics by the keepers of the Official Literary Canon (for English, it may differ in other languages) is that lyrics are a form of Official Poetry if they are both: a) anonymous; and b) antique, thus representing the poetic voice of some sort of semi-primitive Spirit of the People. So, e.g., the first edition (published in 1900) of the Oxford Book of English Verse has three different substantial chunks of anonymous works, the earliest of which are in Middle English, and the last of which are stuck chronologically in between John Bunyan and his approximate contemporary Thomas Stanley (1625-1678). That last chunk has a lot of what are otherwise known as Child ballads, like The Bonnie Earl of Murray (a/k/a Child #181, and extant in multiple variants). I’m not sure if its famous first verse is so dense and opaque at first hearing as to satisfy CuCunnacht’s rather exalted test for poetry.

    Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands, / O where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl of Murray, / And hae laid him on the green.

    While famous for being misunderstood (the mishearing of the last line being responsible for the name of the useful linguistic category of “mondegreen”), I dare say that when correctly parsed the lines are reasonably clear on first hearing and don’t contain additional depths of aesthetic nuance and thought that are revealed only slowly over time.

    Are they poetry? They must be poetry or else they wouldn’t be in a canon-defining major anthology, right?

  44. esavoa said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    There’s an element of unfairness by the Academy for choosing Dylan as the recipient for this year’s literary prize.

    I agree with Pullum that Dylan’s lyrics, without the complement of music, diminishes their significance. A novelist expresses his art with just the power of his words. The artistic value of an author’s work is predicated on his intelligence, his wisdom and the competence with which he’s able to express his thoughts on paper, but without the assistance of a an added artistic component.

    We shouldn’t conflate music and art and classify the two in one category, especially when it’s associated with winning a prize.

  45. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

    @Roger Lustig:

    I agree with you, but … the songs in questions are at best, mediocre poetry. Anthony Burgess said, during an interview, that mediocre novels make the best movies because they primarily depend on plot and action.

    There’s a reason that Schubert’s settings of Müller’s poetry are much better than his settings of Heine’s poetry. Heine doesn’t need musical enhancement.

  46. Morgan said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    Is there any real doubt that a most political musician was chosen because the Nobel committee liked his politics? And liked the idea of honoring and lending the Nobel Imprimatur to his political views?

  47. Renaussens said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

    I am simply outraged by the decision of these stupid old people at head of the jury. Besides leaving their ignorance bare for all to see, they ruined this “literary” prize. What is a singer-songwriter doing there? What’s more, by setting this dangerous precedent, the fools who bravely came up with this ingenious idea helped the modern colonialism gain even more momentum in its ruthless, undeserved and illogical path towards stifling other cultures. If the Nobel for literature was ever to honor singer-songwriters, the likes of Brassens, Renaud, Jara, Parra, De André, Okudzhava, etc. would have certainly come first. No wonder though, they probably had no time to check them out, they were too busy watching American shows on Swedish TV with subtitles to improve their English. In short, a sad day in the history of this now-not very-prestigious prize.

  48. Xmun said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 6:36 pm

    Philip writes:
    As Alyssa says, comparing lyrics to poetry is akin to comparing oranges (which apparently have no rhyme either) to apples.

    But oranges does have a rhyme, as G. K. Pullum pointed out in a Language Log post. He cited Tom Lehrer’s verse:

    Eating an orange
    While making love
    Makes for bizarre enj-
    oyment thereof.

    Moreover Robert Browning once wrote a quatrain which goes:

    From the Ganges to the Blorenge
    Comes the Rajah once a month,
    Sometimes chewing on an orange,
    Sometimes reading from his Grunth.

    (Blorenge is a small mountain in Wales, Grunth is a Sikh holy book. I owe this tidbit to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words.)

  49. Jason said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 8:00 pm

    I’m inclined to agree with Lou Reed’s assessment of Dylan as that “unbearable pretentious kike” or Germaine Greer when she said that he was a creep who couldn’t even write doggerel. But think of the precedent this sets. Now Nobel laureates Chuck D., Dr Dre, Eminem, KRS-One, maybe even Aesop Rock, are a real possiblity.

  50. Roger Lustig said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 8:35 pm

    @Ralph Hickok:
    And Goethe? Surely didn’t *need* music, and didn’t like the settings that Schubert sent him, but–tell me you don’t see the best of those songs as consummate art. The whole notion of the art song was built on Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, which we’d recognize as a song lyric from a play if not for him.

    And, no, Dylan’s songs are not, at best, mediocre poetry, any more than Whitman is just a bunch of rambling thoughts. Gee, what if Whitman had had a composer handy who could do justice to his lyrics? (People have tried and failed, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of success.)

    @Morgan: what *are* Dylan’s politics? He’s clearly against the war in Vietnam, but what else?

  51. Roger Lustig said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    @Jason: just what kind of assessment is “kike”?

  52. January First-of-May said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

    If the Nobel for literature was ever to honor singer-songwriters, the likes of Brassens, Renaud, Jara, Parra, De André, Okudzhava, etc. would have certainly come first.

    I don’t recognize most of the names on this list, but still have to add Paul McCartney.
    Vladimir Vysotsky and Joe Dassin (both 1938-1980, a coincidence I wasn’t aware of before) would have likely been even further up in the list, but the Nobel is only awarded to living people and they both died very early.

  53. Richard said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

    You’ve been with the professors
    And they’ve all liked your looks
    With great lawyers you have
    Discussed lepers and crooks
    You’ve been through all of
    F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
    You’re very well read
    It’s well known.

    But something is happening here
    And you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

  54. Gwen Katz said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 9:53 pm

    While I like that the committee is expanding the scope of the prize (not least because I shamelessly enjoy a good round of pretentious bloviating), and while giving the award to an artist of the masses makes both critical and practical sense, I’m skeptical about this choice because it feels like they decided a songwriter should be nominated and then looked for one to nominate, rather than reaching the decision that Dylan was deserving out of whole cloth. Yes, I’m probably holding a chimerical view of how awards ought to operate, but it still bothers me.

  55. Renaussens said,

    October 16, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    “what *are* Dylan’s politics? He’s clearly against the war in Vietnam, but what else?”

    You’ve probably forgotten about the eyesore which is Neighborhood Bully flying in the face of principal human values.

  56. R. Fenwick said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 1:35 am

    @Y:

    I don’t care all that much about the Nobel, but I would have enjoyed it if they gave it to a deserving rapper before they gave it to Dylan.

    I tend to agree. And contra Jason’s later comment implying the possibility of Dr Dre or Aesop Rock or the like taking out a Nobel Prize, I think it’s worthwhile looking at the stories told by some rappers while simultaneously deploying stupendously complex lines of rhyme (also disdained as poetry by some earlier commenters). Surely it has to be admired as extraordinary oral literature. The complexity of the rhyming themes running through Eminem’s Lose Yourself, for instance, defy simple analysis and almost beggar belief for me; in parts it makes Coleridge look like a primary schooler.

  57. ella said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 2:03 am

    Joni Mitchell. Leonard Cohen. Paul Simon. So many better songwriters/poets of that era to choose from.

  58. Graeme said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 5:56 am

    If they’d given it to Paul McCartney we’d know it was a laff.

  59. ardj said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    I was a little surprised by Professor Libermann’s seeming enthusiasm for this award’s appropriateness, so I read the lyrics to Subterranean homesick blues. And I wish I hadn’t wasted my time. It is a string of little images that are not held together in any way that I cold find meaningful , except that most of them seem to be centred on reasons to be fearful, for someone will come to give you a hard time. But some of it is meaningless (what is wrong with sooty-faced Maggie and the heated bed of plants?) and some just inconsequential: “six-time users hang around theatres” – I suspect that this phrase came through lazy word association from writing “losers” in the previous line, as a “six-time loser” is a phrase that could readily be understood: but what the six-time users are up to beats me. The last verse starts with a kind of narrative, and a moderately shocking denouement – “Twenty years of schooling And they put you on the day shift” – until you stop to wonder why it was not the night-shift, and what is so bad about the day shift, anyway, in the era of “gi’s a job” The slack rhymes and rhymes that don’t even work add nothing to the effectiveness of this as a poem. They might however help to make it effective as a song lyric.

    And this is the best defence that one can offer ? Does a minor contribution to music justify a Nobel prize for literature ? Compared with real writers like Kipling, Soyinka, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Eliot, Neruda, Fo, Beckett …

    So I looked at the record suggested by the Nobel secretary, “Blonde on blonde”, and reminded myself of some of the songs I had heard – unlike Pullman – when they came out while I was at university in the sixties and full (well, fairly full) of outrage (though nothing like under Thatcher or now). Basically David P. summed it up well, with “specific details that imply a plot that isn’t quite given, with an obscure motivation or meaning”. And philip’s implicit suggestion that they are not even doggerel seems the right one.
    J.W.Brewer tries to suggest a way out by arguing for a relaxation of syntax for lyrics. But Dylan’s lyrics (for the most part) cannot reasonably be described as syntactically well-formed in any sense, since, like some poems, they escape from syntax altogether, instead throwing a cluster of ill-assorted images at one. And these clusters are often not even coherent – take the pill-box hat from “Blonde on blonde”, which cannot at all be said to sit on the head like a mattress, let alone like a mattress on a wine bottle: whether this is an obscure bit of Dylan self-irony, mockery of the pill-box hat as an affected style of headgear, or just laziness, I have no idea. But I tend to the last.
    From the beginning he has ignored the disciplines of scansion and rhyme whenever it suited him, and that is in itself ok: Latin poems, for instance, seem to make little use of rhyme, but no one mocks Catullus for it. One might, perhaps, deplore the apparent insensitivity to rhythm, unlikely in a musician but not an insuperable barrier.. But what it is impossible to get over, if one wants to view Dylan’s verse as poetry, is the way that (increasingly with time) sense is missing. Never mind the feebleness of e.g. the white dove image, some of his “pictures” are genuinely captivating. But, taken together, the more he writes, once he moved on from protest songs, the less it coheres, unlike for example Rimbaud’s (prose) “Les Illuminations”. (An interesting aside from Ian Bostridge suggested that maybe the quasi-musical sonorities of Rimbaud’s language had discouraged settings by native composers.) The later song, “Working man’s blues” for instance has a mish-mash of targets which leave one with a sense of ill-directed grievance, unlike The Diggers’ Song or “John Sinclair”, “Oh Freedom”, or the work of Ferré, Brassens or Brel, or Joe Hill, Fats Waller with “What did I do”, “Strange Fruit” , “This land is your land”, or “There’s a good time comin’, boys”, or Leadbelly or Pete Seeger.. . – or some of Dylan’s own early protest songs
    It is of course not the case that good poetry cannot be set to music, and as leiboko pointed out, song is a traditional form of poetry (though he is surely wrong that poetry without music is a recent invention.) . Quite apart from Britten’s work, one has only to look at Schubert or Schumann and their Heine settings, for instance (Ralph Hickok seems to have overlooked Schwanengesang). But music can also work miracles with dross – or even turn reasonable poems into something less and still transform them into works of the highest art: take Schubert’s removal of the ironic and distancing prologue and epilogue from Müller’s Die Schöne Müllerin, and then listen just to “Mein!”, for instance, to perceive what music can do. (I see now that Roger Lustig has anticipated me here) But if one wants to look at great lyric writers, what about Coward or Porter, Brecht or Sondheim ? Joni Mitchell and (at least the early) Michelle Shocked wrote better poems than Dylan.
    No, the problem is obviously not in the music, whatever standing you wish to give it (and I quite liked some of the early songs, don’t know the later ones). The trouble is that what started as vaguely symbolist free-ish verse degenerated, as time went on, into slack-imaged lyrics which would work for Dylan’s music, but which only have a coherent meaning for him, if indeed for anyone. And his admirers must face the fact that this personal recondity is not in the same class as, say, Blake. So, no Nobel for literature, then. Dylan is not a “wordsmith” anymore than the startlingly silly Paul Simon is.

  60. Matt Ferris said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 9:06 am

    @Richard

    Exactly. And:

    You’ll never know the hurt I suffered
    Nor the pain I rise above,
    And I’ll never know the same about you
    Your holiness or your kind of love
    And it makes me feel so sorry

    Idiot wind
    Blowing through the buttons of our coats
    Blowing through the letters that we wrote
    Idiot wind
    Blowing through the dust upon our shelves
    We’re idiots, babe
    It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

  61. cs said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    ardj: “Twenty years of schooling And they put you on the day shift” – until you stop to wonder why it was not the night-shift, and what is so bad about the day shift

    I remember this question coming up on a blog post previously, I can’t remember now if it was this blog or another one, but anyway the point is that after all that school you get stuck in the sort of cog-in-a-machine job where you work by the shift rather than some kind of high esteem job where you don’t really have a shift. So maybe this is an example where Dylan’s lyrics, like some poetry, do require some thought to understand.

  62. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

    This may finally be the moment for me to express a longstanding grievance about song lyrics in general. I like to listen to all sorts of popular, folk, indie, rock, alternative, blues, country and western, spiritual, and practically any other kind of music you can find on the radio today. However, when I print out the lyrics and read them as poetry, I’m almost always disappointed at how terribly banal they are.

    The worst thing, though, is their sheer repetitiousness. Often you don’t notice it when you’re listening to the song, but then when you print the lyrics out, it hits you like a ton of bricks. And this holds for even the best known artists.

    Sometimes, when I’m listening to a song by an inferior singer or group, I will get so annoyed, then angry, at the mindless repetition of the same line that I just can’t stand it. It may gone for as long as ten or fifteen times. They do it not only for the words, but often also for musical phrases.

    When I’m listening to this inferior, but still very prevalent, kind of song, I can hear in my brain a voice saying, “This is an insult to the intelligence of the people who are listening!” When it goes on too long, I finally cannot help but race over to the radio and turn it off with vehemence.

  63. Roger Lustig said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

    @Victor Mair: I take it, then, that you’re not a fan of Bach cantatas.

  64. A Hard Rain said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    Regarding Dylan’s status as a “real” poet, there’s the following from the Academy of American Poets:

    In 2004, a Newsweek magazine article called Bob Dylan “the most influential cultural figure now alive,” and with good reason. He has released more than forty albums in the last four decades, and created some of the most memorable anthems of the twentieth century, classics such as “The Times They Are A-Changin,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

    While Dylan’s place in the pantheon of American musicians is cemented, there is one question that has confounded music and literary critics for the entirety of Dylan’s career: Should Bob Dylan be considered a songwriter or a poet? Dylan was asked that very question at a press conference in 1965, when he famously said, “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.”

    The debate has raged on ever since, and even intensified in 2004, when Internet rumors swirled about Dylan’s nomination for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and five well-hyped books were released almost simultaneously: Dylan’s Visions of Sin, by Oxford professor of poetry Christopher Ricks, who makes the case for Dylan as a poet; Lyrics: 1962-2001, a collection of Dylan’s songs presented in printed form; Chronicles, the first volume of Dylan’s memoir; Keys to the Rain, a 724-page Bob Dylan encyclopedia; and Studio A, an anthology about Dylan by such esteemed writers as Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, and Barry Hannah.

    Christopher Ricks, who has also penned books about T. S. Eliot and John Keats, argues that Dylan’s lyrics not only qualify as poetry, but that Dylan is among the finest poets of all time, on the same level as Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. He points to Dylan’s mastery of rhymes that are often startling and perfectly judged. For example, this pairing from “Idiot Wind,” released in 1975:

    Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
    From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol

    The metaphorical relation between the head and the head of state, both of them two big domes, and the “idiot wind” blowing out of Washington, D.C., from the mouths of politicians, made this particular lyric the “great disillusioned national rhyme,” according to Allen Ginsberg.

    “The case for denying Dylan the title of poet could not summarily, if at all, be made good by any open-minded close attention to the words and his ways with them,” Ricks wrote in Dylan’s Visions of Sin. “The case would need to begin with his medium.”

    The problem many critics have with calling song lyrics poetry is that songs are only fully realized in performance. It takes the lyrics, music, and voice working in tandem to unpack the power of a song, whereas a poem ideally stands up by itself, on the page, controlling its own timing and internal music. Dylan’s lyrics, and most especially his creative rhyme-making, may only work, as critic Ian Hamilton has written, with “Bob’s barbed-wire tonsils in support.”

    It is indisputable, though, that Dylan has been influenced a great deal by poetry. He counts Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine alongside Woody Guthrie as his most important forebears. He took his stage name, Bob Dylan, from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (his real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman). He described himself once as a “sixties troubadour,” and when he talks about songwriting, he can sometimes sound like a professor of literature: “I can create several orbits that travel and intersect each other and are set up in a metaphysical way.”

    His work has also veered purposefully into poetry. In 1966, he wrote a book of poems and prose called Tarantula. Many of the liner notes from his 1960s albums were written as epitaphs. And his songwriting is peppered with literary references. Consider, for example, these lyrics from “Desolation Row,” released on 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited:

    Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
    The Titanic sails at dawn
    And everybody’s shouting
    “Which Side Are You On?”
    And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
    Fighting in the captain’s tower
    While calypso singers laugh at them
    And fishermen hold flowers

    Professor Ricks is not the only scholar who considers Dylan a great American poet. Dylan has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996, and the lyrics to his song “Mr. Tambourine Man” appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature.

    So do his song lyrics qualify as poetry? Even Dylan gets the two genres confused sometimes. He once called Smokey Robinson his favorite poet, then later backpedaled and said it was Rimbaud. He has alternatingly avoided this question and mocked it, as in his song “I Shall Be Free No. 10”:

    Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it
    Hope I don’t blow it

    However, the best, most straightforward answer may have appeared in the liner notes of his second album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, where Dylan said, simply: “Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.”

    (source: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/bob-dylan-im-poet-and-i-know-it)

    Speaking personally, I’m inclined to agree with Christopher Ricks.

  65. A Hard Rain said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

    There’s also this quite interesting analysis of Dylan’s craft by poet Claudia Emerson:

    Many of us credit Bob Dylan for the multi-faceted importance of his art, for its political, social, spiritual, and musical relevance, for its groundbreaking innovation as well as for its many allusions to musicians and poets who came before him. It’s no wonder then that many of us continue to be drawn to the study of this body of work in our desire for greater understanding of it. Another essay in this collection, Gordon Ball’s “A Nobel for Dylan,” for one example, discusses how Dylan’s work should be considered for a Nobel in literature even though that prize is primarily reserved for novels and poetry.

    Dylan is a songwriter often tagged as a poet, and the words to some of his songs have often been anthologized as poems, though he didn’t create them that way or release them into the world as poems. Again, whatever argument people want to make about it they are certainly free to do, but I don’t see why I would want—besides for the sake of studying a part of a whole—to separate out the text from its music and insist that it belongs in one category over another.

    Still, as an admirer of Dylan’s longer songs, I have noticed that in many of them (some more and some less narrative), he employs ordering principles that are less traditionally song-like and instead hearken back to quite ancient oral-formulaic traditions that work to create the “impression” Poe is looking for—lyric constructions that accomplish a narrative impression, or an emotional one—without relying much on chorus or even musical progression and repetition to make the song memorable.

    The measure in some of Dylan’s longer songs, such as “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Tangled up in Blue,” and “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” to name a few, connotes the Anglo Saxon, with a recurring pattern of alliteration, consonance, or assonance woven within the lines in addition to the expected end-rhyme we look for in songs; and while not employed with the deliberate regularity of the accentual meter in Beowulf, the pattern is regular and discernible enough to effect Poe’s desired impression, and make the song memorable despite its lack of the typical strategies of most songs—the mnemonic elements that, regardless of sub-categories (country, soul, pop, etc.), many songs share: rhyme, refrain, chorus, bridge, a “hook” repeated often—all working with the connotations of key and rhythm, minor keys more somber, the polka rhythm festive, etc. Such Dylan songs are not merely long, they are word-rich, so that without the patterning of sound, the brain would have too little to hold on to for the song to be memorable past its melody or a phrase here and there.

    Again, thinking back to that long-ago lesson with Cecil, I realize that memorability is not only an act of the intellect, but also of muscle memory, the brain finding pleasing the repeating movements of the fingers on the keys or strings, or the tongue on the back of the teeth or the roof of the mouth.

    For one example “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” (1975) is long (8:50) and narrative, a puzzler, a mystery. There are a lot of players and much action. While the verses are made up of tightly rhyming couplets, the song employs no refrain or any chorus except variations on the “Jack of Hearts” that closes each verse and rhymes only itself. The melody, while compelling, creates part of the song’s impression by way of simplicity—its measures falling within a limited range, the urgent tempo important part of the song’s driving suspense. But more important to this song’s memorability is the distinct patterning of sound within the lines. Look at the first two lines of the fifth verse:

    Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town,
    She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown.
    The repeating hard “c” of “combed” in the first line sounds in the back of the line in “carriage” which also rhymes internally with “hair,” followed by “took” pairing with “town.” In the second line, “slipped” resonates with “side” as “queen” does with “crown.”

    She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear,
    “Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,” but he didn’t seem to hear.
    Continuing in a similar fashion, “fluttered” echoes “false” which anticipates “lashes,” and the first syllable of “whispered” can be heard gently to rhyme with “his”—while in the next line, “darlin’” obviously waits for the balancing “didn’t.”

    While there are many places throughout the song where we can find patterned alliteration and assonance, there are also more subtle instances of patterned consonance. The first two lines of the seventh verse offer an example:

    Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child,
    She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled.
    Notice that “princess” quite obviously looks for “precious,” but the “s” and “sh” also resound in “skinned” and “precious.” Similarly, in addition to the obvious patterning of initial consonants in the second line of this verse, the first “she” after the caesura finds itself in the final letters of “flash.”

    Of course, any skilled poet or songwriter will use patterned sound inside the lines to pull the ear away from strong end-stops or too many exact rhymes, most preferring a joining of sound akin to a dovetail or mortise and tenon effect over the driven nail of too-obvious end rhyme. But in this case, the technique is so audible throughout, I am persuaded it is a key part of the song’s mnemonic strategy, and not simple variation.

    In addition to the patterning of sound that connotes the ancestral accentual measure, Dylan employs the mid-line caesura also characteristic of the older verse. Whether or not he places his repeating sounds neatly on either side of it, Dylan regularly crafts a caesura, “cutting” or pausing the line with a comma or coordinating conjunction. The ninth verse opens with two good examples among the many, the first line seesawing on “and” and the second on its middle comma:

    Rosemary started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife,
    She was tired of the attention, tired of playin’ the role of Big Jim’s wife.
    Surely those compelled to argue that Dylan is a poet, or more poet than songwriter, mean to compliment, assigning the designation as an artistic elevation from songwriter (with or without apologies to the songwriters whom I do not consider lesser in their otherness). And of course, it’s always writing that will withstand close study that attracts the attentions of such readers.

    And yet, I am most impressed in the end that those with little background in the study of poetry have also been drawn again and again into linguistically complex songs to be influenced, inspired, entertained, and delighted with the songs despite perhaps not recognizing the underlying poetic strategies, even as they most certainly understand them. We don’t have to know how an engine works to understand driving a car with great skill and confidence—and joy.

    Dylan’s songs will continue to be examined for their “poetry”—and for whatever makes people talk about the particular multifaceted lens that is poetry, I am ever grateful. Part of Dylan’s impact for me lies in the ways he can situate his songs at the point where song forever departed from poetry and in so doing, keep alive the vestigial imprint of older poetic traditions.

    (source: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/lyric-impression-muscle-memory-emily-and-jack-hearts)

  66. tpr said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

    I have no problem categorizing song lyrics as a type of poetry, the type that is meant to have a musical accompaniment rather than stand alone. It’s not like there’s a fact of the matter, though.

  67. A Hard Rain said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    The guy who nominated Dylan for the Nobel:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/14/i-nominated-bob-dylan-for-the-nobel-prize-youre-welcome/?utm_term=.b9acdf8dee67

  68. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

    Working the day shift only makes sense in the context of a job where one might equally well be working the night shift, which typically means an hourly-wage factory-or-similar job with less autonomy and/or social cachet than one might have hoped for after 20 years of formal education. The more stereotypically college-grad fellow may be working “9 to 5” or “bankers’ hours,” but not the day shift, because there is no night shift for it to be contrasted with. This does not strike me as a subtle or obscure point, at least not for someone who is a native speaker of AmEng. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, although I was born the year that song came out and it always seemed obvious to me.

  69. A Hard Rain said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    Lastly, Christopher Ricks on Dlyan:

    https://youtu.be/urTApn48ld4?t=10m17s

  70. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

    Both in general and as exemplified by some of the quotations given above, it seems to me that the First Peak Dylan (of Another Side through Blonde on Blonde) and the Second Peak Dylan (of Blood on the Tracks) have rather notably different styles and modes of diction, with both the positive and negative cliches about him more obvious during the former period than the latter. The Blood on the Tracks stuff is less obvious and self-conscious about its literary ambitions and tries to find a more vernacular/conversational voice — which of course may require more skill and artifice to pull off.

  71. Rube said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:”This does not strike me as a subtle or obscure point, at least not for someone who is a native speaker of AmEng. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, although I was born the year that song came out and it always seemed obvious to me.”

    Same here. (Except born just a few years before the song came out.) What I find interesting about it is that is was written at a time when, according to current lore, anyone could find a job, and anyone with an education could find a really good job. It’s the equivalent of today’s common complaint about well-educated young people working at Starbucks, written decades before Starbucks existed.

  72. Rube said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 2:17 pm

    And, I do the research I should have done before I posted, and see the song didn’t come out that long before Starbucks existed, although still a long time before Starbucks became a major employer of recent university graduates.

  73. oulenz said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    I don’t mind the fact that a musician won the prize, but I have two complaints:

    1) I feel Dylan got it because he is so well-known and he had been the musician candidate being talked about for a number of years now. But there’s countless of deserving lyricists, many not writing/singing in English, probably many that are more deserving than Dylan. If he remains the only recipient in the foreseeable future, then it will have been a token gesture, celebrating Western popularity more than just original, timeless quality. If he is the first of many then that would completely swamp out ‘ordinary’ writers.
    2) Given that the Nobel prize may only be awarded to living people, the committee should prioritise worthy recipients that may not have long to live, like the Syrian poet Adunis who they say has been as important for Arabic as Eliot for English poetry. He’s from 1930 so next year may be too late.

  74. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 9:38 pm

    R. Fenwick: The complexity of the rhyming themes running through Eminem’s Lose Yourself, for instance, defy simple analysis and almost beggar belief for me; in parts it makes Coleridge look like a primary schooler.

    If certain rap fans were inclined and had a mind to “cast one longing lingering look behind”, they’d know to go to Poe to show what hip-hop can owe to those who mined this ore before. And in Gerard Manley Hopkins it’s not hard to find what makes you stop conceiving rap surpassed the past in weaving sounds. Even Stevens found what fun abounds, and with the strings he spins he brings in Lindsay. So, when Eminem and the rest of them marshal their full and partial rhymes, and “pull for prime”, I’m feeling that they fall into position with tradition.

  75. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2016 @ 10:13 pm

    @Roger Lustig:

    you’re not a fan of Bach cantatas

    I do like Bach cantatas (are you assuming that I don’t like them?), but they’re not that repetitious.

  76. James Palmer said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 1:32 am

    @Jerry Friedman, brilliant! Can we expect an album of your collected comments to drop soon?

  77. Graeme said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 5:42 am

    The ‘it’s a political gesture’ criticism of the Nobel committee is very dull.
    It’s far less ‘political’ an award than many choices influenced by a writer’s nationality, genre or themes.

    Besides, from “Bringing it All Back Home” onward, Dylan was often explicitly disavowing ‘protest’ lyrics. And surprise, surprise it’s that album on that is cited by those making a case for the poeticism of his writing,

    In any event it is hard to label Dylan ‘left’ or ‘anti establishment. From his gospel albums on you can find pro Israel, anti globalism, populist and even vaguely sexist lyrics to gladden even Trump supporters.

  78. Graeme said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 6:04 am

    John Howard, Australia’s most conservative and long serving modern Prime Minister was an exact contemporary of Dylan. He famously responded to a request to nominate his favourite musician: ‘Bob Dylan, but for the music not the l’y rics’. He wasn’t being ironic either aesthetically or politically (though he was surely aware of the perception of Dylan as a lefty amongst older conservatives).

    Given comments above and by Geoff Pullum that lyrics can’t be appreciated free of music, it’s worth noting the reverse doesn’t necessarily hold. Even with Dylan for whom liking the music and not the lyrics is akin to smoking dope without inhaling.

  79. Roger Lustig said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    @Victor Mair: the critique of Bach’s repetitive style goes back to his own time: http://www.gramophone.co.uk/forum/general-discussion/exploring-bachs-cantatas-no21 (see paragraph 4). Now, Mattheson was a pompous fool (albeit sufficiently prolific that his writings are considered part of the canon of writing about music), but he’s not misrepresenting the text of Cantata 21, 1st movement as Bach sets it.

    There’s plenty of repetitious text setting out there, starting with the Kyrie eleison of the Mass.

    Me, I have problems with pop songs that run out of lyrics halfway through, e.g. Hang on, Sloopy.

  80. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 11:20 am

    James Palmer: Thanks! I’ll be working on the beats for a while yet….

    (For “before. And in Gerard Manley Hopkins it’s not hard to find” read “before, and in Hopkins find”. These rhymes take time to tighten up.)

  81. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    @Roger Lustig

    Please spend some time on the Bach Cantatas Website, say starting here.

  82. GH said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 5:38 pm

    This discussion of repetitiveness in music reminds me of what someone linked to in a comment on some other post, about the Deutsch speech-to-song illusion: Playing back a snippet of normal speech on a loop seems to condition the brain to perceive it musically, so that when later played back in context, it sounds (to a listener so conditioned) like the speaker suddenly breaks out into song – or at least a kind of sing-song chant – for that bit.

    Which is to suggest that perhaps the repetition is in fact an important part of the musical expression, whether it’s Bach’s cantatas or “99 bottles of beer on the wall.”

  83. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 18, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

    It may be worth pointing out that whether or not anyone outside of wikipedia seriously calls it the “Nobel Prize of Music,” there is a reasonably prestigious music-oriented prize given out annually in Stockholm by the King of Sweden His Own Self, which Bob Dylan won in 2000 (after Joni Mitchell, but before Paul Simon, for those keeping score of that sort of thing). Here’s video of him being introduced/lauded by the King’s sister Princess Christina in fluent but rather distinctively-accented English. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yz-OyjYCBMw

  84. Roger Lustig said,

    October 19, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    @Victor Mair: Did I ever say that I didn’t like Bach’s cantatas? I’ve almost certainly sung the choral parts of more of them than you have. My point was strictly that over-repetition is perceived in different ways, and has historically been something that Bach was accused of.

    Having spent years analyzing baroque arias, I can safely say that the genre included many fine specimens that nonetheless involved a lot of textual repetition. Which I don’t mind in the least.

  85. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

    @Roger Lustig

    Did I ever say that you didn’t like Bach’s cantatas?

    I just wanted you to go look around at the lyrics on the Bach cantatas website to see that extreme repetitiousness is not a regular feature there.

    You began this exchange by insinuating, without any justification whatsoever, that I don’t like Bach cantatas.

  86. oulenz said,

    October 19, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

    I think the interesting point that I thought @Roger Lustig was raising when I read his first comment, is that we may enjoy repetition in some music but not in others, and so the question is why that is so. I very much recognise @Victor Mair’s grievance with repetition in much of mainstream music. Yet some of my favourite songs are also very repetitive, like the The Smith’s Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others or Mercury Rev’s Goddess on a Highway. (I also generally love Bach but don’t know what is what.)

  87. E. Pyatt said,

    October 24, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

    Interesting discussion. To throw my two cents

    1) Some of our earliest literature such as the Greek epic poems are assumed to have some sort of musical element. Although we may now distinguish spoken/written poetry from music lyrics, I would maintain that lyrics can be “literature” meaning that the words can something to a listener as well as the music.

    2) One can argue whether Dylan lyrics are good poetry or not, but I think part of the prize refers to his influence over modern music. He was one of the first artists to make pop music a genre with the potential for “intellectual content”. I would also advocate “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as one of his more interesting set of lyrics.

    3) One of the joys of being a linguist is NOT having to decide what makes a poem “good” or “bad”. We see the impact a poem or lyric has on others, but privately we can decide who is really good and who is just pretentious.

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