Friday, October 14, 2016

Dylan in the Pacific

Bob Dylan may be a child of continental America, but his Nobel Prize for Literature deserves to resonate through New Zealand and the rest of the Pacific.
For hundreds and sometimes thousands of years the peoples of this part of the world have spoken, chanted, sung, and danced literature, rather than written it down. Today, in societies like Tonga and Vanuatu, literature is still usually something that is heard, rather than read. Tongan punake compose music and dances to accompany the lines of their poems, and their compositions are performed at important public occasions like festivals and weddings.
Yet the oral literature of the Pacific is underappreciated by too many universities and publishers. There are exceptions, like the magnificent collection of Tuvaluan songs issued as a bilingual book and a double CD set by the Institute of Pacific Studies, and Atuanui Press' edition of Futa Helu's essays on Tongan poetics, but too many important poems remain unknown outside the islands were they are sung and danced. 
Some writers have criticised the Nobel committee's decision to honour Dylan, and accused committee members of wanting to prove how trendy they are, at the expense of serious literature. But this sort of criticism ignores the fact that, in the West as much as the Pacific, great literature was traditionally sung or recited, rather than read. Sappho's poems were performed to the accompaniment of harps; Homer's Odyssey was a campfire tale.
On twitter today Dylan enthusiasts are arguing about his best songs and albums. The art critic Hamish Keith has claimed that the Nobel is a reward for the protest songs the young Dylan composed. I find a lot of those songs smug and didactic, and prefer to listen to some of the more mysterious, poetic songs Dylan recorded later in the 1960s.
My favourite Dylan lyric comes from 'Love Minus Zero/No Limits', a song included on the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. I love the song's use of paradox, and the way Dylan juxtaposes apparently unrelated images to create sudden jumps in scene and time:
My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her
In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all
The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge
The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

In the late 60s when I heard a lot of these musicians they were always being played - Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Dylan and others. I wasn't into that but I did like some of it. One of the problems was that people where I lived used to play,say, Hendrix, for hours, or Dylan and gradually, the effect was that it entered the general atmosphere but was (by me) mostly ignored. But I remember some of Hendrix's songs and Bob Dylan's...I never quite got used to his raspy voice.

But his songs of protest were iconic indeed. 'The Times they Are a Changing' was good and others.

It wasn't until about 1989 that a friend played some of his songs and we found he had some quite complex and baffling lyrics.

Good on him for winning as he was more or less on our side so to speak. I believe he turned to religion later...He was of Jewish origin, his name was, some other name...He was influenced by Arno Guthrie...

He definitely contributed to "writing" as writing is in fact also speaking or singing, it is language, and not that we need Derrida's approval, but that is exactly what he said (his point was that, against Plato, he didn't necessarily agree that speech had precedence over writing. Or, that in fact, speech is writing in any case....but, regardless, it was a good move for the Nobel prize. He's getting long in the teeth though....He's even older than me!

1:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irish responses:

12:17 pm  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

I'd say that Bob Dylan deserves the prize far more than most of the others who've won it. Take a look at the list sometime []. When was the last time you took down a volume of Sully Prudhomme or watched a play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson? Dylan's stature as a poet seems to me beyond question, and any suggestions that the choice was made just to look "cool" seems quite absurd. How cool is he, anyway? About as cool as corduroys and turtle-necks and drinking coffee in jazz bars.

I was listening the other day to one of the many medleys of "best" songs and videos by Bob Dylan on Youtube, and actually it was his work over the last couple of decades that seemed most interesting and genuinely surprising and innovative to me.

9:46 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes but they are two of the first (Nobel winners). Most of the others I can see deserved it in so far as these things go. Faulkner, Marquez, Steinbeck, Eliot, Munro, Transtromer, Pinter, Coetzee and many others...but those are some I think are great and have read. Also Golding I like a lot. Simon has a high reputation. Others I like and approve include Hesse, Gordimer, Grass, Bellow, Patrick White, Beckett, Asturias, Heaney (some of his works), Camus, Hemingway, Sartre (although he rejected it for ideological reasons)....

As to Bob Dylan he is talented but for me his music was always a kind of background drone. I haven't bothered to study his lyrics much.

The interesting point is that he is, according to Hoyle, not really a writer: we don't want too many of the hoi polloi winning such prizes, the others will get ideas above their stations in life!

But joking aside it is a controversial choice...

I say: good on him, but I doubt he needs the money....

A book I read had Camus "agoning" with Sartre which it is implied is Sartre's deeper reason for rejecting the N as Camus accepted it. He didn't live that long to enjoy it. In fact he was disturbed by the winning of it.

One thing seems strange for me, that they give the prize say for one book. Although maybe that is valid.

One amusing potential laureate was John O'Hara, whose life was spent obsessing that he had failed to get into Yale. He would sit in NY bars, get drunk, regale unfortunate patrons with his misfortune, and even pick fights seeming to blame strangers for this lack in his life. He then begged or asked strongly to be awarded the Nobel prize. That he did so set the seal on his attempts (it was said by some he might have been considered)....!!

Those "carefully caught regrets"!

4:04 pm  
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8:30 am  
Anonymous Michael Morrissey said...

Dear Scott

The award to Bob Dylan of the Nobel prize in literature is a travesty. It was never intended to go to song writers - imagine if Leonard Cohen won it! (I feel nauseous). The only honorable thing Dylan can do is reject it as Sartre did. Living writers who arguably might deserve the award could include Don de Lillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood. The list of significant writers who NEVER received the award is long: Tolstoy, Twain, Ibsen, Zola, Chekhov,Joyce, Proust, Malraux, Auden, Durrell, Graves, Greene, Nabokov, Mailer, Borges, Miller(Arthur), Miller(Henry), Paz. Incidently, the award goes for a body of work not a single book. Homer has been in written form for at least two thousand years and Sappho's poems are very short, hence suitable to be put to music. Comparisons with either (made by the Nobel committee and Scott Hamilton) are not appropriate.

10:04 pm  

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