Ben and Bob: the answer, my friend, really is blowin’ in the wind

The answer to this question, that is: Is there any limit to the stupid, subversive, demotic rubbish The Times will publish these days?

Ben Macintyre’s article on Bob Dylan unwittingly plucks the answer out of the blowin’ wind and lays it before us. It’s an emphatic no.

The article itself must have been plucked out too, but not so much of the wind as of the orifice that at times produces it. For Ben thinks Bob should be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Correction: he doesn’t just think that. He agitates for it with the fervour that can only come from deep conviction, approaching religious faith in its intensity.

Like faith, this conviction first springs from intuition and only then acquires the support of rational justification. This may sometimes look odd to an outsider, whose intuitive assumptions take him on a different path.

And odd would be too mild a word to describe Ben’s belief in Bob’s greatness; “…Dylan is indisputably one of the greatest lyrical poets of the age, a supreme master of language who has reinvented his art with exemplary energy and imagination for more than half a century.”

The only way to establish whether or not Bob’s greatness extends to the lofty heights at which the Nobel Prize is merited is to read some of those poetic masterpieces. Such as:

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless,

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness find you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

Now what kind of illiterate nonsense… Hold on a moment. Come to think of it, this stuff isn’t bad at all…

Oops, sorry, lapsus manus. With my characteristic negligence of detail, I’ve written out a wrong poem. This stanza actually comes from Lullaby by W.H. Auden. Someone who never received the prize so richly deserved by Bob for such immortal lines as:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

This flatulent doggerel supposedly merits the accolade that has bypassed, along with Auden, such undeserving scribes as Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Frost.

To be fair to Ben, he anticipates dissent in some quarters and moves fast to preempt it:

“Those who insist that words can only be literature if written for the page seem quaintly old-fashioned. At a time when traditional formal poetry is in decline, informal oral poetry is booming. This is poetry written for the ear before the eye, returning the voice to verse, and now being consumed and recited in vast quantities by a younger generation. It is called rap.”

This is a time-honoured trick. The writer concocts an idiotic objection that no one in his right mind would ever make. Then he refutes it with some élan.

Someone insisting that true poetry can’t be sung wouldn’t be ‘quaintly old-fashioned’, Ben. He’d be ignorant.

Sublime poetry has been sung since the Song of Songs, Homer and the troubadours. Great Persian poets, such as Saadi, sang their poems. Whenever the sublime Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (who never received the Nobel either, instead dying in a Soviet concentration camp) recited his poems, he did so in singsong. So did Pasternak. So did Brodsky.

Poetry doesn’t have to be ‘written for the page’. But it does have to be poetry, which Bob’s excretions aren’t.

Bob is nothing but a trendy leftie who not only hasn’t written a single poetic line in his life but wouldn’t recognise one if it hit him in the eye, still aching from yesterday’s intake of coke.

His acclaim is wholly owed to the fact that he is indeed a trendy leftie who during the ’60s appealed to the pimply youths ready to ‘tune in, turn on and drop out’. Since then he has been attracting their intellectual heirs.

Bob’s art, such as it is, is an extension of the drug culture, which is the only kind of culture it’s an extension of. Only a tasteless ignoramus would regard his songs as poetry (sorry, Ben).

But then Ben also thinks that rap is poetry, albeit ‘informal, oral’. He doesn’t offer any aesthetic judgement to back up this assertion. His argument is entirely ad populi: “[rap is] now being consumed and recited in vast quantities by a younger generation.”

A younger generation does indeed display a voracious taste for aesthetic coprophilia. That’s why a middle-aged, bespectacled gentleman like Ben is duty-bound to educate their taste as best he can, bucking the paedocratic trend. Instead he serves up more of the same malodorous fare.

A modern reader, battle-hardened in the trenches of egalitarianism, may object that I’m too harsh on Ben and indeed Bob. They have one opinion on what constitutes great poetry, I have another. And all opinions are equally valid, aren’t they?

They may be. But not all judgements are, and the crucial difference between an opinion and a judgement is these days lost. Allow me to illustrate this shockingly retrograde point by using Andy Murray as an example.

“I don’t think Andy is all that great a player” is an opinion. “Andy doesn’t get enough ball rotation on his topspin forehand” is a judgement. “Andy’s statement on Scotland’s independence was ill-advised” is both an opinion and a judgement.

In my judgement Bob’s verses, with their distorted meter, attempts to rhyme words that don’t rhyme and absence of any poetic sensibility, are crude doggerel which isn’t so much poetry as its exact opposite.

In Ben’s judgement they, along with rap, are high poetry worthy of the highest accolade. You’ll have to judge which of us is right.

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