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Mr. Tambourine Man

December 2, 2016

Nobel Prizes in Literature, but not in science, are awarded for a lifetime of work — not for a onetime fluke of discovering penicillin, for example, or what DNA does.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Nobel Prizes in Literature, but not in science, are awarded for a lifetime of work — not for a onetime fluke of discovering penicillin, for example, or what DNA does.

I got the biggest kick out of seeing a Nobel Committee member get all huffy and puffy because Bob Dylan reacted to the award just the way one would expect him to — with a shrug.

How dare he be the way he always was?

Of course Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. This is not a fan-mail column. It’s an appreciation of his work, and a lament for the parlous state of U.S poetry.

Of the many things wrong with our poetry today, perhaps the worst is that it’s lost touch with its roots in song.

Look at the crap they publish in the most prestigious magazine in the country, The New Yorker. Those poets couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag. They don’t even try to sing. They write flyshit about flyshit. They are flies buzzing at a window they’ve closed themselves, on their own fingers.

Since the first Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded in 1901, one in four has gone to a poet — 28 of 112. (No prizes were given from 1940 to 1943).

It’s been 20 years since the last poet was recognized: Wislawa Szymborska, in 1996. That closed out a good decade for poets, including Seamus Heaney (1995), Derek Walcott (1991), Octavio Paz (1990) and Josef Brodsky (1987).

It was the best 10-year run for poets since Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse (1910), Rabindranath Tagore (1913), Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam (1916), Karl Adolph Gjellerup (1917), and Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler (1919).

Let’s all drag out their books and read them together.

In testimony to Congress about copyright law, Mark Twain defined “immortal literature” as a book that would live for 30 years. Some of Twain’s books were older than that, and he was losing the rights to them.

Bob Dylan wrote and recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963. By Twain’s definition, that song already is immortal.

Is Dylan as good a poet as Czeslaw Milosz (1980), Pablo Neruda (1971) or T.S. Eliot (1948)? Of course not. But people will be singing Dylan’s songs — not all 522 of them, at last count, but surely 100 or so — long after we are all dead.

Dylan writes songs that feel hundreds of years old the day they are born. He surely knows more songs than anyone else on the planet. The man did his homework.

Musically, Dylan is not a flashy songwriter, but he is remarkably subtle, and unusual.

For example, “Not Dark Yet,” on his 1987 album “Time Out of Mind,” is a 32-bar tune, but not written in four 8-bar sections, as nearly all 32-bar tunes are. It’s 5+5+5+5+5+5+2. The dragged-out five-bar phrases exemplify the lyrics (“It’s too hot to speak, and time is running away / There’s not even room enough to be anywhere / It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”)

“Tough Mama,” from the 1974 album “Planet Waves,” sounds like a typical 12-bar blues, but it ain’t. A typical 12-bar blues is made up of three four-bar sections, all, of course, in 4/4 time. “Tough Mama” is a 12-bar blues in two six-bar phrases, each of which begins with a measure of 3/4 followed by a measure of 5/4. You don’t notice it because it falls naturally.

Dozens of Dylan tunes have cute tricks like that. He is a master songwriter, a master lyricist, and as close as anyone is in the English language today to the sources of song that made Shakespeare a great poet.

Alex Needham reported in The Guardian this week on The Rolling Stones at the rock festival in the Mojave Desert during which Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize.

“He kept calling me Sir Ronnie,” the Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood said, “and when Charlie [Watts, the drummer] walked in he said, ‘And Sir Charlie, too! Everyone from England is a sir, right?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, Bob, but it’s not like … it’s really good about your Nobel Prize.’ And he went, ‘You think so? It’s good, huh?’

“He didn’t really know how to accept it,” Wood said, “but he thought he had done something pretty good.”

Yeah, Bob, pretty good.

Categories / Arts, Op-Ed

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