Blowing in the Idiot Wind
If Bob Dylan’s maunderings qualify as literature, I’m a talking coatrack. I think that in commending Dylan’s Nobel Prize bestowal (David Hajdu’s “Bob the Bard,” Nov. 7], The Nation is being played by the music industry—the primary purpose of which, as the Byrds remind us, is to move units of “plastic ware.”
I’m a temperamental and generally doctrinal liberal. But I’m also a working poet. (And, yes, I self-publish.) I have to deplore the praise of third-rate poetry, if only for the integrity of my artistic ego. And Dylan, with a few singable exceptions, is a pretentious high-school-notebook poet at best. He gets style points (like many modernists) for willful unintelligibility and the proper political leanings. But I am appalled at the eagerness with which The Nation has jumped on the Dylan-for-literary-genius bandwagon. There are umpteen better rock and/or pop lyricists from the 1960s and ’70s out there, including Jimmy Buffett, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Harry Chapin, Gerry Goffin, and on and on and on—not to mention non-counterculture lyricists like Leslie Bricusse, Johnny Mercer, etc. “Moon River” isn’t more poetic than any of Dylan’s stuff?
Take Dylan’s half-century career: Are there more than a half-dozen songs you ever want to hear again, unless you’re an acolyte? Does this mean that, reciprocally, organizations that honor and fete accomplishments in music, like the Grammys, are going to be handing out trophies to dreary sonneteers like myself? I’m not holding my breath. I think the Nobel people, by mixing up genres of writing, are trivializing the idea of Literature. Sounds hokey—literature with a capital “L”—but I think picky Euterpe would balk at admitting Dylan to the company of Robert Frost and Pablo Neruda (or his namesake, Dylan Thomas). The committee passed over Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, and (so far) Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Bly, and Mary Oliver. Now they’re exalting this surly poetaster (as if he weren’t already dripping with riches and encomia from other sources). I’d have to agree with Walker Percy, among others, that the Nobel Prize for Literature, as for Peace (see: Gore, Albert), has degenerated into—and some say it was never anything more than—a PC flavor-of-the-month club.
Re Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize: It’s silly. He wrote a few good tunes and a lot of boring, repetitive, pretentious crap. Perhaps the august Nobel committee might now consider posthumous prizes for the real masters of American music, to wit: George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Jimmy Van Heusen, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, W.C. Handy, Otis Blackwell, Ray Charles, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Hank Williams… the list is too long for your letters page. Oh, well. Henry Kissinger won the Peace Prize. Enough said.
new york city
The epic poetry of Homer, and not only the choruses but much of the dialogue of the Greek tragedies, were meant to be sung. We’ve lost the music, or we’d remember this fact better. The word “lyric” in “lyric poetry” means “meant to be sung,” just the same as it means among modern songwriters. Ben Jonson, Robert Burns, Pierre-Jean de Béranger, and many other lyric poets have written works that many people first heard accompanied by music. The Library of America’s American Poetry: The Twentieth Century anthologies include song lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and other Broadway lyricists; the only touch of snobbery in these selections is that just one or two Porter passages are included, versus many, many poems by “unmusical” lyricists like Emily Dickinson. In spite of that snobbery, Dylan is far from the first songwriter to be thought of as a poet. The lyrics in Shakespeare’s plays were sung to music so complicated that it completely changed the shapes of the words sung, but they’re still anthologized as straight poetry, with no indication at all of how the music changed them.
James M. Rawley
Interesting narrative [Astra Taylor’s “Q&A: Sarah Jaffe,” Nov. 7]. One thing that had hit me in the face by the time I finished the piece was the extent to which political leaders have to be coerced to do what the populace wants. It is supposed to be government of, by, and for the people, so theoretically all I should have to do is ask politely. But, of course, we know it’s actually government of, by, and for the 1 percent, so asking is just like whistling in the wind. The thing is that there is little difference between the aristocracy of centuries past and the robber barons, captains of industry, billionaires, and moguls of today. This kind of situation has rarely ended well.
All We Are Saying Is…
Re your November 7 editorial [“Cold-War Dangers”]: I’ve always held peace to be the most important “issue” in any federal election—presidential, senatorial, or congressional. Every other issue becomes irrelevant once war has begun. (And I especially mean war’s full consequences, which the United States has been fortunate enough not to have experienced since the Civil War, the last one waged on its own territory.)
After seeing how both the current administration and the prospective Clinton one have endorsed very provocative movements that have taken us closer to conflict with Russia, I think The Nation can best shine a spotlight on this threat by withdrawing its endorsement of the Clinton gang, and citing this escalation as the reason for its change of heart.
Francis Louis Szot
The True Silent Majority?
I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for someone to notice that Clinton voters have been completely invisible in the coverage of this year’s campaign. Thank you, Katha Pollitt! As she notes in “Women Strike Back” [Nov. 7], we’ve had endless stories on the angry white workers who support Donald Trump, and on the idealistic millennials and grizzled New Left veterans who supported Bernie Sanders. But Clinton voters? Nary a mention, other than as a statistic. It’s been pack journalism at its worst. Maybe when this election is over, some enterprising reporter might want to contact a few of them and see what makes them tick, considering that they’re the largest group of voters of them all.