Nobel prizes

From In the Loop, the St Andrews weekly newsletter:

Hot on the heels of Honorary graduate Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, our own Doctor of Music Bob Dylan was yesterday (Thursday 13 October) announced as the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.

I can’t say much about the work of Fraser Stoddart, except that according to Wikipedia, his group was the first to synthesize a compound whose structure is that of the famous Borromean rings: three rings, with all three “linked” but no two linked, so that if any one is removed the other two can be separated. There is a nice picture here.

The second announcement may have surprised you – it did me – but indeed St Andrews gave Bob Dylan an honorary doctorate in 2004; it was only the second such award he has accepted (the first being from Princeton in 1970).

My very casual reading of commentators suggests that a significant minority question whether Bob Dylan’s work counts as “literature”. Without a definition of literature, I don’t see how this can be answered. But I will throw in one observation, which I haven’t seen made elsewhere (though no doubt it has, ad nauseam).

Songs, when the words are written out, have a superficial resemblance to poetry, and probably suffer from the comparison, in the views of literary critics. But there is a big difference. A good poem has many layers of meaning; you can read it many times and still find different things in it. (I am thinking of Eliot’s Four Quartets here.) But this layering is not really possible in a song.

I think I am not completely unqualified to judge: I have written a number of songs, have set others’ words to music, and put words to others’ music. In a poem, if you miss a word or a thought, you can go back and recapture it. You can’t in a song, which you probably hear playing in the background while your attention is on something else entirely. So the level of complexity in a song is forced to be much less than in a poem, and writing words at just the right level to capture attention is an art, quite different from the poet’s art.

Even Bob Dylan doesn’t always get it right. Despite careful listening, the fourth line of “Not Dark Yet” was completely beyond me until I looked up the lyrics on the Web. Back in the 1960s this was not possible, and we have an example from back then. When Jimi Hendrix produced his famous cover version of “All Along the Watchtower”, he mis-heard the words: Dylan sings “None of them along the line/ Know what any of it is worth”, but Hendrix sings “…/ Nobody of it is worth”, which makes no sense.

It hardly needs saying that the other side of the coin is that the words can’t be separated from the music: once you know a song, the words and music come to mind together, and form a combination much more powerful than either alone.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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4 Responses to Nobel prizes

  1. Yiftach says:

    Peter, I know more or less nothing about this. However, I have a couple of comments: (i) Efim Zelmanov said (and I forgot the context) that you do not need a definition of an elephant to recognize one. (ii) It is very common in Israel to take poems and make them into songs. So I am not convinced the difference is big.

    • I obviously can’t deny that there is some overlap between songs and poems. Some poems are suitable to be set to music, and some are not (I do not think you could set Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, for example, though perhaps a couple of stanzas…) And some musical styles can carry words of poems, while others (heavy metal, full symphony orchestra) probably can’t.

      • Yiftach says:

        Just one more thought in Hebrew the word for both is song (SHIR) which is coming from singing (although in modern Hebrew they came up with a different word for song). So I am wondering whether this is a relatively modern separation.

      • I am guessing that, for the Hebrews, as for the Greeks (and probably many others), poetry was originally sung; the idea of poems that you read quietly in your study is a much more recent innovation.

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