Within minutes of the announcement of Bob Dylan's Nobel award for Literature journalists, critics, poets and song-writers were busy writing commentaries. So be it. Sequential responses take over from the achieved writing. I lived in the United States during the worst years of the Vietnam War. I had also marched with CND protesters into Trafalgar Square. Bob Dylan’s songs were part of that reality. Protest, disaffection, distrust and a real sense of living under physical threat - the Bomb, the Draft; the music and the words were there, not in the background but in the foreground. Does the Nobel prize ‘officialise’ him and his work? Does it say that the establishment has won? Or does it recognise that a generation's culture of protest has been so successful that the new rulers had better watch out, we'll walk out again, young and old.
reproduced a section of a piece by Simon Armitage on his slow familiarisation with Bob Dylan. It was a chapter in Neil Corcoran’s Do You Mr Jones: Bob Dylan with Poets and Professors
(Chatto 2002). It is nicely autobiographical and very perceptive:
I’ve often argued that the only skill any writer needs is the ability to see his or her work from the other side. That is, to put him or herself in the position of the reader. Musicians must be able to do something similar, and I got the instant impression with Dylan that he knew exactly how he sounded in my ears. (Guardian 15 Oct. 2016 p16)
The original reviewer of Corcoran’s book in the TLS
seemed sceptical of Dylan’s worth and more sceptical of the critics who seemed to him more concerned with translatable content and supposed allusions than the wholeness of lyric and music (critical theory of the period rules OK). Christopher Ricks in the latest TLS
is consistent and awed:
I’d not have written a book about Dylan, to stand alongside books on Milton and Keats, Tennyson and T. S. Eliot, if I didn’t think Dylan a genius of and with language. But let’s not forget, in the delight of this moment (of great moment), those other aspects, not strictly Literary, of his genius, sharing in the constitution of his art. When Eliot wrote the line ‘To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage, it was a creation of words only (though not merely). When Dylan sings ‘condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting, he compounds it all, with voice and music joining with words within a different drift and drive. (TLS 14 Oct. 2016)
I wonder whether Simon Armitage, writing in 2002 about Dylan, with a sense of surprise at his discovery of the tones and beat of what was for him musical history, would have predicted his own growing fascination with poetry of the distant past, from Homer to Middle English. His recent translation of Pearl
has attracted attention, not least, perhaps, because it is a poem less well known than that of near contemporaries – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman
and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
. I was invited to look again at Pearl
by the poet Rebecca Goss whose poems have appeared in Stand
and whose book Her Birth
(Northern House/Carcanet) is centred on the loss of her own baby daughter. Goss has spoken at medical conferences and hospital training sessions on handling grief and she uses her poetry as a multi-dimensional link between mothers, fathers, doctors, nurses, and those who write advice for parents who have lost a child. Dialogue, and the expression of the unknown, the unexpected and, till it has to be done, the inexpressible has proved so important for all involved.
Goss’s invitation to review Armitage’s Pearl
for the Lancet
presents a comparison between poets and doctors as practitioners equally concerned with transformation – with illness, with injured bodies, with death. Both are often the bearers of sad and difficult news. Doctors, performing centre stage in some of our most challenging dramas are often the ‘speakers’ during our most intimate moments. Of course, some of these moments also bring joy. Pearl
is fraught with such ambiguity. It begins – as Goss explains – with a father describing the loss of his daughter: ‘she slipped from me through grass to ground’; and, by the end, he is able to conclude that ‘at first I pined for my fallen pearl,/ then gave her up to go to her God,/ with my blessing’. In her article, Goss explains how those words ‘slipped’ and ‘fallen’ resonate with her as a parent and she reflects on ‘the physical toll of bereavement’ in the poem: ‘My priceless pearl, you inflict such pain,/ What use is treasure if it leads to tears.’ (The Lancet
Vol 388 No 1048 p. 952)
In the original Middle English the above lines that Goss quotes are:
Ƿurӡ gresse to gro!unde hit fro me yot,
My precios perle dotӡ me gret pyne!
What serueӡ tresor bot gareӡ men grete…
It is pertinent to ask about the effect these days about a subject of ‘mere’ scholarly study being placed squarely in the context of a parent’s struggle with the speech of grief. And as Armitage said of Dylan, the Pearl/Gawain poet, in this translation, might be said to know exactly how he sounds in [our] ears.
Listening with fascination to the sounds of such links across time and between languages and cultures is prompted further by the good news that Vahni Capildeo, born in Trinidad and with a PhD in Old Norse, has won this year’s Forward Prize for best single volume. She has also been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize. She has been a poetry fellow at Leeds and was the featured writer in Stand
vol. 9 no. 2 (2003). Her Measures of Expatriation
will be reviewed in a future issue.