Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize (Part Two)

Monday, October 17, 2016

I went over a list of winners of the Nobel Prize in recent decades the other night and found many admirable and extraordinarily deserving authors: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Harold Pinter, Wislawa Szymborska, VS Naipaul, Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison. Unfortunately, Graham Greene and Robertson Davies were not listed.

On the other hand, I also found that Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney were given this honor. Anyone complaining about the selection of Bob Dylan needs to be sentenced to six months of reading only the poetry of these three poets. Nobody else. Just these three. Brodsky for a week. Walcott for a week. Heaney for a week. Repeat again, then get serious. Brodsky for two weeks, Walcott for a pair, followed by Heaney for a pair.

In contrast, I could maintain an exclusive, six-month reading regimen with any three of the first set of writers I listed: Paz, Szymborska, and Morrison, for instance. Or Naipaul, Beckett and Marquez. Six steady months of that rotation and I would come out of it a better writer and reader. Six months of Brodsky, Heaney, and Walcott would leave me desolate and bored. Numbed by the anesthesia of imaginative vacuity. Heaney’s “Digging” is an example of a so-called canonical poem I dread teaching. The equation of the pen with the shovel? Did no one who read an early draft of this poem point out to Seamus how obvious, how unsurprising, this is? I do want to emphasize that I have given Heaney a more than generous amount of my time and attention in considering his work. Despite my misgivings about the quality of his poetry, I did attend one of his readings once, when he appeared at UCSD after winning the Nobel. Unfortunately, his poems were just as safe and banal as I anticipated.

As much as I find Heaney’s poetry uninspiring, I would never engage in the kind of ad hominem attack that implicitly accuses Bob Dylan of being responsible for the rise of neo-fascist politicians in the United States. “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president,” wrote Mr. Tim Stanley (The Telegraph, October 13). Excuse me, but Dylan’s accomplishment in setting poems to music is no more responsible for Trump than Seamus Heaney’s devotion to his art was responsible for Margaret Thatcher.

The conflation of Bob Dylan and Trump is an outrageous smear, and Mr. Stanley reveals himself to be a more feasible applicant for a position as an advisor to Mr. Trump than a reliable cultural critic. Would it not be far more accurate to say that a world that awards Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature is a world that elected and re-elected Barack Obama, and will soon affirm Hillary Clinton to be his successor? Bob Dylan’s writing does not diverge into a pair of roads, one leading to Trump and the other leading to Obama and Clinton. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.


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