And here’s the question: Is there any limit to the subversive, demotic rubbish receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Bob Dylan, the recipient of the 2016 prize, plucks the answer out of the blowin’ wind and lays it before us. It’s an emphatic no.
His award proves that Times writers, specifically Ben Macintyre, possess prophetic powers. For two years ago Ben wrote an article pressing Dylan’s case with deep conviction, approaching religious faith in its intensity.
Actually, conviction is too mild a word to describe Ben’s belief in Bob’s greatness. Fanaticism is more like it: “…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 deserves the Nobel Prize is to read some of his poetic masterpieces. Such 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 is deemed to merit the accolade that has bypassed such undeserving scribes as Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden and Robert Frost.
To be fair to Ben, he anticipated dissent in some quarters and preempted 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 Psalms, the Song of Songs, Homer and the troubadours. Persian poets, such as Saadi, sang their poems. The Russian poet Mandelstam (who never received the Nobel either, instead dying in a Soviet concentration camp) recited his poems 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 last night’s intake of coke. His acclaim is wholly owed to his indeed being a trendy leftie who during the ’60s appealed to the pimply youths ready to answer Timothy Leary’s call to “tune in, turn on and drop out”.
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 or literature in general (with apologies to the Nobel Committee and Ben).
But then Ben also thought that rap is real poetry, albeit “informal, oral”. He didn’t offer any aesthetic judgement to back up this assertion. His argument was entirely ad populum: “[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 savage paedocratic trend. Instead he serves up more of the same malodorous fare, not so much blowin’ in the wind as producing it.
A modern reader, battle-hardened in the trenches of egalitarianism, may object that I’m too harsh on Ben. He has 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.
In my judgement, Bob’s verses, with their distorted meter, attempts to rhyme words that don’t rhyme and absence of any poetic sensibility whatsoever, 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.
Meanwhile, now that Bob’s achievements have been recognised, it’s time to think of next year’s candidates. I’d like to nominate another great practitioner of “informal, oral” poetry, the rap group N**gaz With Attitude.
Their work too is “now being consumed and recited in vast quantities by a younger generation”, who join me in admiring these immortal lines:
“So I’ma let’em know how a nigga’s livin’// Checking the muthafuckas cause nobody ain’t givin’ a damn thing// To a nigga, a real nigga// So I’m livin’ by the muthafuckin’ trigger.”
Good luck, N**gaz With Attitude. And congratulations, Bob.