Songwriter Leonard Cohen wins a major international literary prize
A few years ago I laughed my, er, head off when I first heard that some of Bob Dylan’s more intemperate fans were lobbying to get him a Nobel Prize. In literature. Today I’m not so amused.
Not after Leonard Cohen won Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Letters yesterday, worth $45,000 — a prize previously given to Margaret Atwood, Günter Grass, Amos Oz and Paul Auster, each of whom is an actual, you know, real writer.
Further dampening my mood: News that Dylan himself has been nominated for the $50,000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, given out every other year by the University of Oklahoma’s literary journal, World Literature Today.
This is a prize previously given to, you know, real writers, like Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Algerian novelist Assia Djebar and Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.
And apart from Dylan, the 2012 field consists most of real writers the likes of John Banville, Aleksander Hemon, Elena Poniatowska and Rohinton Mistry.
What, you may ask, is so wrong with nominating exceptional songwriting talents like Dylan and Cohen for literary prizes? After all, they undeniably have built up, as the Spanish jury says of Cohen, “a body of literary work that has influenced three generations of people worldwide through his creation of emotional imagery in which poetry and music are fused in an oeuvre of immutable merit.”
Storytime! Louise and the Adventures of a Chicken, June 11 at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts.
Dylan has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel since 1997 — and not by unqualified nut jobs, either. Here’s a link to the nominating letter written by VMI English professor Gorden Ball. As far as I know, Dylan has never deviated from his 1965 assessment of himself as “a song and dance man,” but he has not discouraged efforts in his behalf, either.
Nor should he. The man’s a genius, no doubt about it, one of the four or five most important cultural figures of the past half century, and certainly more influential than any other writer I can think of. The last scribe to occupy anything like Dylan’s cultural significance was probably Norman Mailer, and that was all over by 1980.
Part of my objection is the traditional argument that no matter how great a wordsmith a songwriter might be, his or her work is fully realized only in performance. By wedding lyric with music, a songwriter creates a hybrid art form that deserves its own place of respect.
But it’s not poetry. It makes different demands on the writer and on the performer. A poet must originate his or her music from the words, grammar, syntax and sentence structure alone. A songwriter must always account for the emotional and aesthetic impact of the external music.
Sure, a poet and a songwriter have similar talents and use similar skills, but ultimately they are as different as a ballet dancer and an NBA star.
I know! Let’s cast Dwyane Wade in Swan Lake and send Ivan Vasiliev out to play two guard for the Heat in Dallas on Sunday, see how that turns out. Both are athletic, disciplined and precise, right?
Of course, some smartypants could deal this line of thinking a blow simply by pointing out that much ancient poetry — The Iliad, for example, the Psalms of David, Sappho and so on — were meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. And I acknowledge that some of Dylan’s verses, and Cohen’s too, can be read on the page.
Nonetheless, Dylan and Cohen are primarily popular performing artists, their lyrics intended to be songs. They have more in common with, say, Woody Guthrie, or Edith Piaf, or Buddy Holly, or Rogers and Hammerstein than with Homer or Shakespeare or Frost or Banville.
I’ve argued elsewhere for the importance of genre distinctions, and essentially that’s the issue here. Bob Dylan is not a poet, just as Derek Walcott is not a songwriter (his Broadway collaboration with Paul Simon, The Capeman, closed after 68 performances).
Why should Cohen and Dylan jump the tracks and take prizes (and prize money) intended for real writers? John Banville can’t win a Grammy for writing a novel, why should Dylan win a Neustadt for writing a bunch of songs — no matter how indisputably great they may be?
Finally giving Dylan, or Cohen, literary awards sets a terrible precedent. The same arguments being made for Dylan could apply to comic book writers and the authors of Hollywood screenplays — hey, they all work with words, right? I demand a Nobel for William Goldman!
The next thing you know all literature, no matter its provenance, will slurry down a chute to collect in the increasingly noxious cesspool known as popular culture.