By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
THE NOBEL PRIZE is irrelevant. Bob Dylan doesn’t need the money. He doesn’t need the fame or the accolade. Nor, it seems, does he want the hassle of taking the news from the Nobel people themselves. This has displeased Per Wastberg, an academy member, who said Dylan’s behaviour was “impolite and arrogant.” Ancient Bobcats around the world are no doubt nodding their heads and thinking he still knows how to stick it to the Man.
Reactions to the award were, as you’d expect, vociferous and polarised. There have been egregious examples of the Nobel going to totally inappropriate people — the Peace Prize to Kissinger in 1973 is one; the same going to Obama in 2009 and the EU in 2012 are others. Compared with these Dylan’s is one of the least egregious.
Of all the people commenting on Dylan’s award, the only one who said anything that stuck in my mind was Mark Steyn, who talked about Dylan seeking “premature geezerdom”, in contrast with everyone else questing for eternal youth. Ironically, this was from an article Steyn had written way back in 2001, when Bob was still a jaunty 60-year-old (60 in normal human years, that is; 160 in Dylan years).
I applaud Dylan’s unrelenting geezerdom as well as his restless exploration of music. I’m also cool with him receiving the Nobel. There was a time when I was thoroughly sceptical about the value of his lyrics as poetry, ie, in the 1970s when I listened to Blood on the Tracks and Desire, and read Ginsberg’s sleeve notes praising him as a modern troubadour. Now I’m more sympathetic, not least because these days I read Dylan’s lines more than I read Ginsberg’s. Whether either of them will be remembered much in the next 50 to 100 years no one knows, any more than they knew in 1932 if John Galsworthy would be read at all by the start of the twenty-first century (the answer being no, even given the fillip of having The Forsyte Saga turned into a popular tv series in the 1970s).
It struck me a while ago that the arrival of Dylan signalled the true end of poetry as a popular art form. I know I’ve gone on about this for ages, but I think that after the passing of poets such as Dylan Thomas and, to a lesser extent, Philip Larkin, the time when a poet could feature, however faintly, in the popular imagination was over. Poetry’s functions have been taken over by the best in popular music. Dylan epitomises the best of the best. There’s another irony there, in the fact that if Dylan Thomas was The Last Poet, then Bob, taking his name from him, is the First New Poet.
After Dylan there seems little point in writing a poem in any traditional manner. The expression of emotion, the exploration of human behaviour, the search for meaning in the world, the use of narrative, all are done as well in popular song, more memorably and reaching a greater number of people than they are in contemporary poetry. If you have to continue writing poetry you may as well strike out in other directions. At least then you’re not expecting to have a readership beyond the dozens.
This is not to confuse popular music with performance poetry and rap, which do not count. Take away the performance and you are not left with poetry. Usually what you get is a stream of badly-rhyming, sloppy attempts at humour and political correctness. Most of it is an insult to the language.
There’ll be plenty of people ready to argue with that. Maybe a lot of them are happy with the recent news. I bet Mr Dylan, wherever he is, couldn’t care less either way.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.