A Poetic Award for Mr Tambourine Man

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s long poem ‘Votualevu Junction’ is being published in the November issue of Transnational Literature journal of Flinders University. His fifth book of poems, Across the
19 Oct 2016 11:00
A Poetic Award for Mr  Tambourine Man
Satendra Nandan

Fiji’s leading writer Satendra Nandan’s long poem ‘Votualevu Junction’ is being published in the November issue of Transnational Literature journal of Flinders University. His fifth book of poems, Across the Seven Seas, is due for publication in March, 2017.

Perhaps the most refreshing news during the terribly depressing and dismal current US  presidential campaign is the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter of my generation.

The 75-year lyricist-poet was awarded the prize last Thursday to the surprise of some and to the delight of many more.

He is the first American artist to get the award after Toni Morrison in 1993. The world of literature reacted with its usual, envious controversy: is it literature?

Writers like Jean-Paul Satre declined the prize in 1964 and when his rival Albert Camus was awarded, his only comment was: “He deserves it!”

Writers can be vain and vain glorious, but the important thing is that they write. It’s a solitary business and often they scrape their entrails to create a world for their readers and fellow writers.

The very conservative Nobel committee has been subtly and creatively subversive for quite a while. Some of its Peace Prizes are politically shrewd and they have lifted the profile of persecuted individuals like the Dalai Lama against Chinese hubris and economic hegemony.

There’s no doubt that the Nobel Prizes are the world’s most prestigious in the fields they are awarded.

Literature Prize, of course, has a special appeal to many of us. Last year it was awarded to an obscure journalist who wrote her books on the lives of many victims of the Soviet wars and the suffering of numerous widows of after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

It’s good to know that someone, somewhere is bearing witness to the crimes against humanity.

Svetlana Alexievitch with her interviews made journalism into a high art form and created a new genre of literary productions. Journalism was elevated to literature.

This year poetry in pop culture is  the winner.

The award to Mr Dylan raises the bar higher into music and wider into popular culture; oral traditions, and the politics of poetry and the poetics of a nation’s concerns. Mr Dylan ‘created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ declared the Nobel committee.

This is not about making America great again: it’s about freeing the spirit of a nation shackled in remnants of slavery, guns, treatment of women and migrants.

His critical compassion  creates lines like these in ‘The Chimes of Freedom’:

Tolling for the deaf and blind, tolling for the mute,

For that mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute,

For the misdemeanor of love, chained and cheated by pursuit,

And we gazed upon the  chimes of freedom flashing.

Surely it’s good to remember these lines on the eve of Christmas in the islands of asylum seekers in our midst.

Mr Dylan uses many traditions of poetic compositions — from Homer to Homer Simpson. Guilt, grief, glory and the grandeur of the human is mixed with the chimes of freedom and protest. Freedom from fear is the great modern challenge.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, 75 years ago, he changed his name to Dylan after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas whose works like Under  Milk Wood we taught at USP in the 1970s. And who can ever forget Thomas’s moving poem about his father:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas became an alcoholic and died  at the age of 39.

Mr Dylan has been the lyrical conscience of the crude and brutal side of politics of the US. One can see it in the current debate  for the US Presidency. Donald Trump is not an aberration: he has emerged as part of a significant segment of a nasty side of politics in several democratic elections. Think of the President of the Philippines and you get my drift.

I get the feeling that the Nobel Committee has deliberately given the prize to a conscientious singer to wake up the electorate to its better side rather than the lamentable campaign mounted by Mr Trump. Mr Trump is being trumped by a literary prize and a lyrical poet.

The more enduring part, though, may be that the boundaries of poetic expression of our humanity are enlarged and broadened beyond the conventional conception of poetry. Mr Dylan has used fragments of many poetic forms and traditions to create a genre uniquely his own in his own inimitable voice.

After all, much of human civilisation is built on orality, and not on the written word. Writing is comparatively young but it has changed the very structures of our thoughts and reality like aviation has redrawn the map of the universe.

Poetry is our powerful human weapon. Most sacred scriptures derive their authority from the poetic nature of their revelations of the realities around them. God is possibly the most poetic of all creations; and his creations most poetic—we’re mere imitators of the original artist. Nothing is original, including original sin. But it’s thinking the second time that is important.

In classrooms today poetry is seldom taught. It’s difficult, we’re told, and yet poetry is all around us. In our hearts and imagination; in our dying and loving; in our fields and flowers; in our gestures and conversations; in films and the sunset or sunrise; in our streams and dreams; in the sky above and the earth below; in the tears of our eyes and the shimmering of stars in the glimmering waves of the ocean. On our soccer fields; and what is Fiji Sevens  if not poetry in motion?

Many years ago, in my secondary school, a teacher introduced me to William Wordsworth’s poem ‘Tintern Abbey’. I still remember the lines:

And I’ve felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of settings suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Later at the university I studied his  ‘Immortal Ode’ W Young Wordsworth had imaginatively experienced the French Revolution, lost his first love and a child. Out of that came the unforgettable lines that can give you strength in the darkest moment of you life:

Though nothing can bring back that hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.


The magnificent poem concludes with these lines:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,

Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

How often I’ve remembered these lines and heard the still, sad music of humanity. And it is this music that Mr Dylan has expressed in his often scintillating lyrics.

Recently at a Book Fair, I found a copy of William Wordsworth’s biography. It’s big book, almost 1000 pages. As I began reading it, on the very first page, the biographer, Juliet Barker, writes:

“On a dark, stormy day in December 1783, a thirteen-year-old boy scrambled to the top of a rocky outcrop near Lakeland village of Hawkwshead. From this vantage point, half sheltered by a dry stone wall, and with only a sheep and a hawthorn for company, he sat on the  damp grass, straining to see through the mist that intermittently shifted to reveal the woods and the plain below. It was the eve of Christmas holidays…”

The young Wordsworth was waiting for the first sight of horses that were coming to bring him home from school. His eyes ‘swam with tears’ but a deeper experience was shaping his imagination.

The turmoil of the scene mirrored the anxiety of his mind in the descending darkness mixed with his longing to be at home—this would haunt him for the rest of his life and no poet has attempted the autobiography of the growth of a poet’s mind with more sublime intensity that William Wordsworth.

Young Wordsworth soon loses his home; his father goes bankrupt. His biographer writes: ‘He did not know then the whole course of his life was about to be changed and, with it, the history of English literature.’

On such small experiences great epics can be created, whether it’s Valmiki’s Ramayana or Homer’s The Illiad.

Poetry, in its infinite themes, forms, voices, rhythms, rhymes, music is the real winner in this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. And if poetry is the breath of life, teaching and writing are acts of worship.




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