The Swedish Academy took everyone by surprise when they chose American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. While everyone agrees he’s an icon, is what he writes poetry? (The kind with a capital P)
Such an unorthodox pick was bound to set many tongues wagging. Especially among poets and novelists, those who craft words into magic. Among the many.. .
- “If the written word is truly up against the art of songwriting for the greatest literary prize in the land, ‘baby, baby, baby, oh baby’ is going to win every time,” said Molly Brodak, a poet. (A comment both funny and clever, I thought)
- “Bob Dylan is in the 2% club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice,” Billy Collins, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, told the New York Times. (A serious comment, but Collins is also a witty guy. On a road trip, a great friend of mine once played a CD of Billy reading some of his poems at a benefit performance: smile, smile, laugh, wow!)
But forget Dylan for a minute, if you can. How important is poetry to your life? I asked myself that question, and the answer surprised me.
I learn to read and love reading, in part because Dr. Seuss’s silly rhymes are fun:
- “I’m Yertle the Turtle?/Oh marvelous me!/For I am the ruler of all that I see!” Or how about. . .
- “Today you are you, that is truer than true/There is no one alive who is you-er than you.”
At some point my class (and maybe yours, too) has to read The Iliad, The Odyssey, or both. By then I’ve begun my love affair with chapter books and novels (Stuart Little, Nancy Drew, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Yearling, etc.) and now I’m backsliding to poetry. Except in this case, each poem is the length of a novel and most of the verses don’t rhyme. (Maybe back in 800 B.C., or whenever Homer created his two epic stories, people hadn’t figured out that rhyming makes poetry much more fun.) A lot of the language is flowery and archaic. We plow through it–our determined teacher driving the tractor– and what we discover is one heck of a plot: every man in the ancient world wants Helen. She’s got ‘the face that launched a thousand ships,’ and she’s the reason Greece and Troy were at war for ten years. Not only is Helen rich and privileged (her mom is a queen) but she’s got Zeus for a dad, and he’s the supreme ruler of all the Greek gods. A pretty great story, right? Suddenly the verse deserves my grudging respect.
- “Everything is more beautiful because we are doomed/You will never be lovelier than you are now/We will never be here again.” from The Iliad
- “Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier/I have seen worse sights than this.” from The Odyssey
Somewhere deep in my subconscious, a thought buries itself: a string of words can be “poetic” and “lyrical.”
My class reads our first Shakespeare play–some of it silently or at home because there isn’t time to read the whole play out loud in class. (All plays, no matter who wrote them, are best enjoyed by watching actors perform them. And when a play is written entirely in verse?) Frankly, I think To Kill a Mockingbird is a better read, and yet it’s clear Shakespeare knew how to string together some words to make them sing. And unforgettable.
- “To be or not to be: that is the question.” from Hamlet
- “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.” from As You Like It
- “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” from Twelfth Night
Meanwhile, we’re also learning about the Civil War, WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, etc. It’s not so much the textbook facts that chill and thrill me, it’s the speeches. Somehow they bring history alive.
- “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
- “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. . .we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill, during WWII
- “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963 in D.C.
- “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Astronaut Neil Armstrong, walking on the Moon, 1969
Despite the fact I majored in English Lit in college, I’m still not into poetry. Yet with every job change, I think about a few lines from a Robert Frost poem I was forced to read in high school.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less travelled by/And that has made all the difference.” (Frost’s words will continue to haunt/prod me into the future.)
Meanwhile my reading tastes have changed. I still love a good mystery, but I want more than just a clever ‘who done it.’ I fall hard for P.D. James’s Scotland Yard Detective Adam Dalgliesh. Apart from his job, he’s also a published poet, which is pretty cool but I don’t really care about that. I care about what he says and thinks–and I love the way James strings her words together.
This year I discover a love for hip-hop, a form of poetry set to music. It’s because, like everyone else in the nation, I’m crazy about the Broadway musical Hamilton.
“The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father/got a lot farther by working a lot harder/By being a lot smarter/By being a self-starter/By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.” from Alexander Hamilton, the song
Even as this Presidential Election Year drags me down, the Hamilton story–its poetry–continues to lift me up. I think, as a nation, we’re so much better than this nastiness right now (and yet politicians were nasty to each other in Hamilton’s day).
Back to Dylan
When Bob Dylan lays his 75-year-old head down to rest, he need not fear dying–he’s got so much to show for his living: albums that have sold 125 million copies around the world, a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, numerous Grammys, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song in the movie Wonder Boys, a Medal of Freedom from President Obama, a special Pulitzer Prize, and the list goes on and on. He’s revered by Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, who tend to quote him–both the conservative and the liberal.
Some of his song verse is as simple as Dr. Seuss,
“Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me/In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.” from Mr. Tambourine Man
And some of it as deep as Homer,
“Darkness at the break of noon/Shadows even the silver spoon/The handmade blade, the child’s balloon/Eclipses both the sun and moon.” from It’s Alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding)
Seuss-like or Homer-esque, aren’t they both great? Dylan’s artistry continues to touch millions of different souls.
Bob Dylan doesn’t need the Nobel Prize to make him great. We the people need it. His Nobel Prize reminds us that poetry is about striving to say it better, do it better, or sing it better. Poetry is important to every child, woman and man who passes through this world–whether we realize it or not.