Friday, October 14, 2016

A Song for Alfred Nobel

The posting date of this entry, as you may have noticed, is October 14th 2016, the day after it was announced that a new name had been posted on the honour board in the Hall of Literary Fame, a place where club-members generally do not have first-names, but only initials: T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster (J.K Rowling); and now, to the total perplexity and consternation of those human beings who have a desperate need to put things in boxes, with labels on the boxes, but then don't know what to do with that which fits neither box nor label... one R.A Zimmerman, Poet Laureate, though in most of his several former lifetimes he was known by his pseudonymous Welsh name (Welsh, from the Anglo-Saxon, Wal-es, meaning "outcast", "foreigner", "unwelcome") as Bob Dylan.

Back in the days of Apollo and Orpheus and King David, they played the lyre rather than the guitar, though, let's be honest, a lyre is simply a guitar with four extra strings and its fretboard cut short. Ode, verse, poem, psalm, epic, saga - all of them, back then, written to be recited, performed, yes, sung, to the accompaniment of a sitar or an ud, a lute or a harp, quite likely with a tambourine providing percussion, a ram's horn standing in for the saxophone, a full choir of female backing vocalists - and what we call "lyrics" are simply the words written to be accompanied by the lyre. So what, pray, is the difference between King David's royal orchestra doing Psalms to the Great Moon-Goddess (Hallelu-Yah - the link here is to K.D. Lang at Leonard Cohen's induction to the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame), or Bob Dylan and the Band performing the marriage rites of "Isis on the fifth day of May", or between King David (Psalm 34:19) telling us that "YHVH Adonai is close to the brokenhearted, and helps those crushed in spirit" or Dylan, "Trying To Get To Heaven Before They Close The Door" while insisting that it's "Not Dark Yet"?

To he or she who writes, there is no difference between a song and a poem; the same range of techniques are available to both, and neither form is prose. One may use rhyme, or free verse; one may choose to include metaphors and similes and alliterations etc, or one may decide not to; one may use metre, or blank verse; one may write exalted language, or one may write banality; cadences, assonances and dissonances, the methodologies of rhythm, are inevitable, where written prose tends to be flat. One may leave the finished work to be read on the page, or recite it, or perform it with musical accompaniment of any kind from madrigal to bluegrass, from jazz to folk-rock, from Surah to Cante Jondo, from Hymn to Hip-Hop; there is still no difference between poem and song, between verse and lyric, not in the act of writing anyway. And in Hebrew the word Shir can mean a poem or a song; many other languages likewise use the same word for both. 

And as to its being of Nobel standard - that surely is a matter of quality, and impact, and not of form. 

The 20th century produced only two artists of truly universal stature, whose work transformed the way we think of art and culture, who have influenced, because they are unavoidable, every artist in their field who has followed, and will continue to do so in the future. One of those was Pablo Picasso. The other was Bob Dylan.

Which "poem" should I choose for this blog? Too many great pieces to make selecting easy, but if you want to get inside the mind of a truly deep-thinking artist (one of the criteria, surely, for his Laureateship), and at the same time witness his formidable skills with rhyme and lexicon and rhythm and metre and all the other techniques that poets have available, and I would recommend you follow the words in print while listening to them in performance, "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding", with or without the ironic "ho ho ho" of the 1965 Free Trade Hall concert, in Manchester, which is the version I have linked here. You can find the printed lyric here.

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