When, some fifteen years ago, Gordon Ball began nominating Robert Zimmerman for the Alfred Nobel Prize in Literature, I was skeptical. I had my own favorites (Heaney had left the list by winning in 1995) and some questions about the meanings of “literature” and “song lyrics.” Even recognizing thresholds, I like to keep definitions in play, and I was fond of quoting Paul Simon, who once responded to Dick Cavett’s “love your poetry” that he didn’t write poetry, just songs. For poetry, he recommended Dylan Thomas.
Connections abound, as Simon songs quote Robert (Bob) Z. (for Dylan, I reckon). Some poets, especially the university-lodged ones are in high dudgeon and wonder if they’re eligible for Grammys now. I don’t know, and I’m not about to alter my own criteria for poems – that they should engage me viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and (a recent emendation) rhetorically. I know some of Dylan’s lyrics qualify under this system, hundreds of his lines, thousands of his phrases. So why not call it poetry, no matter how much the words demand audible performance?
Truth is, when Gordon began nominating BD/RZ, readers were just beginning to take memoir and creative non-fiction seriously as literary genres (I still have my reservations, but they’re no longer very sturdy). As one Nobel committee member put it, “The times they are a-changing,” which has a nice ring to it.
But I have other fires to stoke. I love reading Trevor, Oates, Roth, McCarthy, Edna O’Brien, Atwood, McGuane and several other writers of English who are eligible, but when I begin to rehearse arguments for their crowning, there’s usually a snag in the material, a “that dog won’t hunt” clause. Sometimes it has to do with shock and awe fiction. And okay, I can’t really think why Trevor shouldn’t get it. And I still reserve the right to be reserved about writers I can’t read in the original, which is my shame, but neither is that a robustly held dogma. When I read A Hundred Years of Solitude, I knew I had to do the dictionary and grammar dance to swim through Cien Anos de Soledad, and it was worth it. Went at Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu the same way.
There’s one writer of English (and translator of nearly every tongue that came down from Babel) I long to see honored. That’s W. S. Merwin. For his oracular authenticity, his ecological advocacy, his elliptical spirituality, his anti-war steadfastness and for his always-surprising reservoir of observations and tropes, not to mention sheer deftness and beauty, I’d have given him the prize before Heaney’s was settled on its shelf.
But now that the category of literature has been expanded in a very official way (assuming Dylan accepts the prize and attends the fete), I wish I could start campaigning for another great narrative artist. Unfortunately, the provocative and controversial Akira Kurosawa died in 1998, and (zombie and vampyr soap operas aside), I don’t want to see “living” redefined in order to “grandfather him in.” He’s out of the running.
But think about the essential nature of Ran, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Rashomon, Stray Dog, Darsu Uzala, Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro, Kagemusha. Born of Asian history, myth and custom, these films have altered the course of western narrative thought, too, cinematic and otherwise. That the Nobel crew was too slow to develop their new panoramic view to include Kurosawa is regrettable but irreversible, so we’ll have to find other ways to keep him on the front burner.
However, Merwin in still alive and still writing vital poems. I guess I should start my campaign there. Gordon, could I get a little help?