How many roads must a song walk down before we call it a poem?

 

“How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?” At 7:45 on a cold October morning, my car radio announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for literature.  I rapped my steering wheel with excitement.  “Unprecedented,” said the reporter.  “Musician,” “folk songs,” “body of work,” etc. etc. they clamored…”but is it poetry?”  I was thrilled.  I had grown up on Dylan’s lyrics.  I had never been someone who related well to songs.  I had found my way into music through his writing.  And Dylan was the first one who taught me that songs could hold the whole world.  I realize my loosey goosey genre bending interest in art isn’t for everyone.  When I went to graduate school, I very intentionally selected SAIC, a place where one could enter as a screen writer and leave as a sound artist, as long as that was what your art was telling you.  I couldn’t stomach the idea of a program like the one at Cal Arts where if you wanted to write poetry instead of fiction, you had to go to a different building.  To me, art had always been building a bigger story—it was not just the medium of words or paint, but the life of the characters; it was a sort of world building.  I followed that story loyally, and whatever materials happened across my path rolled up into the form, like a snowball, gathering size and speed.  So, maybe that explains why Bob Dylan represented something essential in my dedication to the arts.  His lyrics taught me much about the love of language and language of love, and simultaneously, his lyrics beckoned me to take a listen to the other media involved in song, which I struggled to understand.

So when there was an outpouring of frustration with Dylan winning the Nobel, I was needless to say, disappointed.  I read the articles and tried to give them a chance.  One argument seemed to be that genre matters too much for us to let it go—that we can’t abandon it fully.   Because then art would be difficult to identify, and consequently, understand.  But, I thumped back in angry heartbeats, art that creates confusion is the essence of challenging our perception and understanding of the world!  Others argued along the vein of, ‘if him, why not Kanye West?’  I see that as a flawed and forced hypothesis—as in, why not anybody else?  I think this lashing out of the literary community against an artist is not only disgraceful, and most likely bred of insecurity, but actually much worse.  I think it has to do with identity and difference.  If I identify as a poet, and someone writes fiction and calls it poetry, I no longer know where I stand.  If I identify as man, and someone who is a man identifies as a woman, I no longer know who I am.  I think a lot of prejudice and fear is bred out of the threat to our own identities.  It’s about needing to know who we are through comparison.  I am a woman because I am not a man.  If we take away our concept of opposites, the world begins to crumble.  For those who don’t know who they are without a title, a form, and a clear road map, attributing the word “literature” to Dylan’s work is blasphemous.  But when I showed his lyrics to my classes, they were extremely accepting.  Most of them had never heard of Bob Dylan.  One even asked me whether “it was a California thing”.  So they definitely weren’t impressed by his star status.  They were listening to his words.  And I worry that this literary community reaction has forgotten in all their squabbling and concern over music versus art, versus rock star, to read the words.

I experienced an interesting teaching moment when my embedded tutor asked me in front of my students who already knew I approved, whether I was REALLY okay with it.  I could feel the student’s eyes peeking at me over their computers in the lab.  I told him honestly, “I think it’s great.”

“Really?” responded my tutor, clearly distressed.  Then he tried to change the subject: “Then, never-mind. Never-mind.”

“No, it’s okay.  We should get a drink and talk about it.” I offered.  “I think it opens up the door for art that doesn’t have to look like art.” I continued.  We never got that drink, but I kept stumbling across dissenters: poets, teachers, and dear friends, who I absolutely admired and respected.  I started wondering whether I was wrong.  How could so many people turn against someone whose only crime was using beautiful words to communicate with a whole generation searching for an identity?  I was thankful that my students remained so open-minded about art and identity, and I began to wonder whether pigeonholing our crafts was related to pigeonholing people.

I kept remembering Allen Ginsberg and the reaction of the literary community.  “Howl,” was treated like a disease, a curse, a degradation against literature.  One after another the phD’s and literary icons of the time lined up to denounce the poem, to claim that it wasn’t a poem, that because of its illicit drug-use and sexuality, such content could NEVER be literature.  And I remembered Ginsberg’s own retort:  “A word on the Academies:
poetry has been attacked by an ignorant and frightened bunch of bores
who don’t understand how it’s made, and the trouble with these creeps
is that they wouldn’t know poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight”
(Allen Ginsberg, Notes).

And here we are in 2016, and through the calming effects of time, the formless rant that was “Howl,” comfortably resides in the canon of literary history.  So why do we become our own worst enemies to progress?  Why are we so uncomfortable when a poem, or a person, shifts shapes before our very eyes?  Why do we insist on categorizing the birds in cities as pigeons, and the ones on our greeting cards as doves?

When I don’t know which way is up anymore, sometimes I find myself so thankful for my students.  This week I needed them to help me find my bearings.  They connected the dots between fear of change and xenophobia.  They helped me understand that my own literary community that I hold in such high esteem, is just another group of people, mobilized by a need for belonging in a society.  If literature is degraded to the level of rock and roll, writers lose their altitude as someone who matters.

Often, at the beginning of the semester, students tell me they don’t like art, or would never venture into a gallery because it is elite.  After a semester of conceptual work, graffiti, art made from trash and recycled materials, I am usually able to morph such attitudes into an appreciation that art is all around us.

I suspect this is all related.  Maybe where we error is teaching essay, rhetoric, fallacies, and grammar as though it is lofty, rather than as a part of the student’s own lives.  We need to see ourselves reflected in language, whether we look at re-evaluating singular and plural pronouns as part of gender and identity progress, to the impulse to graffiti one’s name on the wall (an urge as old as cave painting).  If we insist that literature is a high art form, how can we continue to reflect ourselves in it?

And then I started thinking about the election.  I watched the debate at a democratic watch party at O’Shaughnessy’s Public House.  It was a strange and comforting feeling to partake in a community and collaboratively heckle the bad guy.  Although I found myself feeling wary about the false sense of comfort that temporary abode provided me.  I was stirred by a deep concern for the very notion of good and bad guys as relics of a literary tradition designed to build drama and suspense.  And then I started wondering at the connections between it all, the rejection of Dylan, the election polarization, the impetus that the teacher is essentially right and knowledgable.  Perhaps, the rejection of election rhetoric and the rise of Trump’s off-the cuff speech patterns has everything to do with the elitism of our language.  Maybe the celebration of Trump’s mono-syllabic words is a direct reaction to elite communities who insist they are the higher, more educated art form.

If so, this is a dangerous game.  As we sat in seminar yesterday discussing political correctness and connotations of words like “queer” and “gay,” I couldn’t help but recall the Trump supporters who took to Twitter to call Anderson Cooper a “fag” after he defended women in the debate.  Naturally, I shared that with my classes.  Because there were words being slung that could hurt.  Because literature is no longer literature if it ceases to communicate.  And when we suction off music and art and poetry and fiction, we limit their potential to shape shift.  A song can become a poem, and a man can become a woman in this day and age.  A pigeon is just a label.   And there are doves everywhere, but we’ll never see them if we refuse to look.

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