Cultural Caviar

Not a Nobel Man

October 22, 2016

Multiple Pages
Not a Nobel Man

The great sinologist and literary essayist Simon Leys began his essay on the French writer André Malraux by telling the story of a village priest who reduced his whole congregation to tears by the ardor of his preaching—all, that is, except one man, a visitor. He did not cry, and after the sermon was over the villagers asked him why not.

“I am not of this parish,” he replied.

With regard to the widespread admiration for Malraux, Leys wrote that he was not of that parish. I could write the same of Bob Dylan, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I am decidedly not of his admirers’ parish. When I heard the announcement, I thought it was a spoof. I thought, “Why not award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a celebrity chef?” Poetry is made of words; Dylan wrote words. Food is made of chemicals; chefs mix chemicals. The analogy is not perhaps exact, but good enough.

It is true that I have not followed Dylan very closely. He never interested me much. To me, his nasal whine was authentically the sound of spoiled middle-class-adolescent self-pity. In fact, I thought it was so awful that he made the lugubrious Leonard Cohen sound like a nightingale. But I accept that tastes differ (though it must be remembered that humanity is more divided by taste than by anything else).

“To me, Dylan’s nasal whine was authentically the sound of spoiled middle-class-adolescent self-pity.”

As to the supposed poetry, it seems to me not merely bad, but—except for an occasional line or two—authentically awful. It isn’t even funny like the verse of William McGonagall, a previous claimant to the honor of the worst poet of the English language. His most famous poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” begins: 

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!

Alas! I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away

On the last Sabbath day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

These are not necessarily the worst of McGonagall’s lines: As another poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, put it (in a more existential context), “No worst, there is none.”

In fact, I can no longer laugh at McGonagall as I once did, for he strikes me as an authentically tragic (and heroic) figure. The son of illiterate Irish immigrants to Scotland, he knew the worst of Industrial Revolution-type poverty but nevertheless conceived the ambition to be both a Shakespearean actor (when he played Macbeth, it is reported, he refused to lie down and die) and poet. He believed that he was possessed of immense poetic genius and read his doggerel poems to the mocking applause of audiences everywhere, though he never realized that the applause was mocking. He died as he had lived, in poverty. His aim was noble, a desire to transcend his humble and hideous beginnings by means of art; he both failed catastrophically and succeeded triumphantly, for his name is as immortal (or as transient) as the English language itself. McGonagall, in fact, encapsulates in his single self the glory and absurdity of human existence.

He was a far greater man, then, than Bob Dylan, who hoped to become poetic by a kind of magical thinking, that is to say by literary association, taking upon himself the name of a true poet (Dylan Thomas), whose brilliance with language was evident from a very early age but who for a long time was as famous for his bohemianism as for his poems.

Not having studied Bob Dylan’s poetry very closely, it was helpful to me that, on the day after the announcement of the award, the Guardian newspaper published what it selected as his ten greatest lyrics. Here is one of them, that seems to me in the cold light of print to be distinctly sub-Shakespearean:

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, babe

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe…

No doubt it is unfair to compare any living writer with Shakespeare, a genius who comes but once a millennium, if that. But it seems to me also that the lines above—supposedly among the best, be it remembered—are sub–Ella Wheeler Wilcox or Hallmark Cards, let alone sub-Keats or sub-Tennyson. Here, for example, is a verse from Wilcox, taken at random:

I do not like the phrase “It might have been!”

It lacks force, and life’s best truths perverts:

For I believe we have, and reach, and win,

Whatever our deserts.


Terrible, of course, but not as bad as Bob Dylan.

The interesting question for me, then, is why the award was greeted by much of the intelligentsia not with derision but with fawning. I think the answer can be summed up in one word: terror. The intelligentsia was terrified to be thought snobbish or, even worse, elitist, though one might have thought that the whole premise of the Nobel Prizes was elitist; and there is no doubt that Bob Dylan is (or at any rate once was) very popular.

Popularity is not in itself a bad thing, of course; but like originality, it is not an artistic virtue in itself or a guarantee of aesthetic or intellectual worth, any more than it is a guarantee of the opposite. Nevertheless, Bob Dylan’s popularity was a quality that was brought forth repeatedly in the fulsome, even obsequious, praises of the award by those who, I suspect, would not find his lines very impressive on the page. No one claimed for them any notable verbal felicity because to have done so would have been patently ridiculous. Here are some further of his immortal lines, also among the best he ever wrote:

I see a lot of people

As I make the rounds

And I hear her name here and there

As I go from town to town

And I’ve never gotten used to it

I’ve just learned to turn it off

Either I’m too sensitive

Or else I’m getting soft

If this is the best, the worst may not easily be imagined.

I appreciate that the Prize has to be awarded to a living author and that ours is not a golden age of literature, but still there must be hundreds of thousands of authors as good as or better than Bob Dylan. I am reminded of what Dr. Johnson said when asked whether he thought that many men could have written the poems of Ossian. “Yes, sir,” he said, “many men, many women, and many children.” Maybe next year the Nobel Prize in Literature could be awarded to Hallmark Cards, the poetry within which is at least as popular as Bob Dylan’s. Or perhaps it should be the Prize for Peace, given that the sentiments of Hallmark poetry are so well-meaning and saccharine.

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