Bob Dylan & the Nobel Prize — Song for a Sunday

The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Bob Dylan. An unconventional choice by any measure. Prize-winners give a speech when they pick up their awards. Dylan, unconventionally, sent singer Patti Smith in his place, to sing one of his songs.

Finally, this week, Dylan forked over his speech—not in person but in an audio recording. The Academy described the speech as “extraordinary” and “eloquent.”

Extraordinary. I’m sure it is. It may be the first Nobel Prize speech delivered like a cabaret show, with a solo pianist noodling away. In the world of cabaret, musicians most often “noodle” to distract the audience from a singer’s vapid or over-extended between-songs patter.

Bob DylanNot that I’m calling Dylan’s speech vapid; that’s for you to judge. But as for over-extended, would anyone expect less of the man who pioneered the six-minute-long single? A six-minute-long single that was voted the #1 song of the 20th century. The entire 20th century. Now that’s extraordinary.

Most of the eloquence of Dylan’s speech derives from the three great works of literature he summarizes—at length. The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. He starts with Melville’s opus, the précis of which consumes nearly half of the 27 minutes of his speech. After—spoiler alert—Ahab goes down to his watery grave and Ishmael survives by floating on a coffin, Dylan concludes:

“That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”

And that’s it.

That’s it?

That’s it. And he’s on to the next book report.

Not even Bob Dylan understands why he won the Nobel

I suppose this was Dylan’s way of tying his work to “real” literature, the literature that resonated most with him when he was growing up. He says as much in the opening of the speech:

“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you.”

Except he didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t a speech so much as a word antipasto. He laid out the ingredients for a feast and invited each listener to assemble the speech he or she wanted.

Bob Dylan is an extraordinary poet. He knows his way around a metaphor as well as anyone—as well, perhaps, as the poet whose name he incorporated in his stage name, Dylan Thomas. He could have taken this occasion to speak about the importance of lyrics, the ability of lyrics set to music to catalyze change. He could have done a lot. Instead, he offered us book reports. (I wish he’d just hired a good speechwriter.)


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How can I find my voice? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I find my voice?
A: What was it wearing when you saw it last?

Truly, one of the most frequent of the frequent questions new writers ask me is some variation of “How do I find my voice?”

I understand: No one wants to be derivative. No one with a brain, anyway. We all want to be uniquely creative, to string together the 26 letters of our alphabet in new and exciting ways. Good luck with that!

Hey, we writers should count our blessings: musical composers have even fewer building blocks to work with—only 12 tones in the chromatic scale. Try arranging a dozen notes in a completely original way. It’s maddening.

How do you find your voice?

find your voice by reading
Billy Collins, photo by PEN American Center, CC BY 2.0

Since it’s “your voice” everyone says you need to find, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s somewhere inside you, just waiting to get out. But poet Billy Collins, speaking at a White House conference on poetry, told his young audience:

“It is not lying within you. It is lying in other people’s poetry. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice, you need to read deeply.”

I hardly need to add that this White House conference took place during the previous administration. And the link to it in Austin Kleon’s discussion of the writer’s voice leads nowhere. (Really? The Trumpsters had to take down all of Obama’s links?)

Collins talks about reading poetry, but writers need to read everything. Read lots of the kinds of things you want to write (or think you want to write) and then heaping tablespoons of everything else. Everything. Here’s Collins again:

“And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this ‘literary influence.’ It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them….

[S]ay, ‘Okay, I didn’t write that poem, let me write a poem like that, that’s sort of my version of that.’ And that’s basically the way you grow…”

Read a lot. Write a lot. Then do lots more of each. Eventually, your writing will stop sounding like other people’s and start sounding like yours. And then, the magic:

“After you find your voice, you realize there’s really only one person to imitate, and that’s yourself.”


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Lyrics about Paris — two songs for a Sunday

lyrics about Paris
By Zinneke – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

One of my favorite lyricists, Yip Harburg, wrote a detail-rich song that’s become a classic: “April in Paris.”  Not only had Yip never been to Paris, he’d never left the U.S. of A. He wrote the lyrics based on a close reading of travel brochures.

Yip’s lyrics contain only two details describing Paris. In the verse he writes, “The tang of wine is in the air.” I have no idea what that means.

But in the chorus, an indelible description:

April in Paris
Chestnuts in blossom…

As I understand it, you can see lots of flowers blooming in Paris in  cold, rainy April. But the chestnut trees generally wait for the warmer weather towards May.

Even though it’s not quite an accurate description of Paris, the details of the chestnut trees in blossom captured the imagination of travelers everywhere. Lyrics don’t need to be packed with details to resonate.

Lyrics — Imagination vs. Facts

Contrast this with Cole Porter’s song “I Love Paris.” Unlike Harburg, Porter had actually been to Paris. He could run circles around Harburg with facts about Paris. Do you get a sense of how he felt about it from these lyrics?:

Every time I look down on this timeless town
Whether blue or gray be her skies
Whether loud be her cheers or whether soft be her tears
More and more do I realize that

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles

I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year
I love Paris
Why, oh, why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.

What does that lyric tell you about Paris? Nothing—except that Cole Porter loves it. Or, since he wrote this for the Broadway musical Can-Can, that the character singing the song loves Paris. But it’s just a list song. A fairly boring and lazy one at that (“drizzles/sizzles”—doesn’t do much for me).

Want to profess your love? For me it’s not in the repetition, it’s in the details. Notice the beauty, describe the beauty. Don’t just wear your sweetheart down with a million I love yous.

Brooooce — Song for a Sunday

Brooooce Springsteen
Creative Commons license, Jolanda Bakker photographer

There’s one song that goes straight to my heart, and only one singer who can sing it. Of course I’m talking about Brooooce—Springsteen, to those of you not blessed to be from New Jersey. And the song is his version of Tom Waits’s classic, “Jersey Girl.”

I grew up in New Jersey. And, much to my surprise, returned as an adult and lived there for another two decades before moving on once more. When I was a teenager, Springsteen made it cool to be from New Jersey. That fact alone would earn him my undying loyalty and affection. Add to that the poetry of his lyrics, especially his early, lovingly detailed story-songs, and I was hooked.

The “Jersey” Springsteen commemorates in his work is not the New Jersey I grew up in—I’ve only been to “the Shore” once; never set foot in Asbury Park, or ridden the carnival rides on the boardwalk. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll claim those experiences by proxy, because I claim Brooooce.

Think, feel, and sing — Yip Harburg songs for a Sunday

“Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.”
— E. Y. “Yip” Harburg

Yip Harburg around 1950
Yip, around 1950. Fair Use

Other than Stephen Sondheim, my favorite theatrical lyricist is Yip Harburg. You’ve heard his work—you’ve probably even sung some of it, from the time you were little. Yip—or E.Y. Harburg, as his credits read—wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz.

Yip never met a word he couldn’t play with. And words have always been my favorite toys. So I think I loved him from the moment I heard the Cowardly Lion sing:

What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the “ape” in “apricot”?

You’re probably completing the lyric in your head so I’ll write it down for you:

What do they got that I ain’t got?
Courage.

Yip Harburg — more than just a great rhymer

My father loved Yip Harburg for writing the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow. He loved it because the main characters were Irish immigrants like, well, like some unknown people farther up his family tree. I loved it because Yip made up words and seemed to be having the time of his life doing it. The leprechaun (surely you can’t write a show about Irish people without a leprechaun, can you?) mashed up his words gloriously:

I might be manishish or mouseish
I might be a fowl or fish
But with thee I’m Eisenhowzish
Please accept my propasish
“Eisenhowzish”—yes, that’s a reference to General (not yet President) Eisenhower. Yip peppered his musicals with political references whenever he could.
Finian’s Rainbow is rife with leftist politics—its subplots deal with class struggle and racism, and one lively song (see below) contains a lyric about “the misbegotten GOP.” My father was a staunch member of that “misbegotten” party, yet he never seemed to notice the politics of Finian’s Rainbow because: Irish people! Accents! A leprechaun!
And that—that made me love Yip Harburg even more. Like ground-up broccoli in a chocolate brownie, he found a way to get subversive political sentiments into the heads of people who might have rejected a more direct argument.
It’s magic—and as far as I’m concerned, the best kind of magic: because it’s all done with words.


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What commitment looks like

what commitment looks likeI had surgery earlier this week. You didn’t notice my absence because I banked some blogs in advance. That’s what commitment looks like. You do what you need to do to show up even when you can’t show up.

This part of the 15 minutes of writing I did the day of the surgery:

“But you’re having sur-ger-y.”

That was the spousal unit last night, pronouncing every syllable as if talking to a deaf person. Which I suppose in a sense I was.

I had just said that even though we had to leave the house at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., I planned to get up early so I could do my 15 minutes of writing.

Yes, I’m having surgery today. But that is not going to stop my writing streak (day 303, thank you very much.). I’ll write tomorrow, too, hopped up (or, more accurately, down) on pain-killers. It might sound like gibberish, but I’ll be doing it.

Why write today? Would sleeping for 15 minutes longer really change much about the day ahead? I suspect there’ll be a fair amount of sleeping ahead for me today. Lying flat on my back, at any rate.

But writing for 15 minutes—this will give me a great sense of accomplishment. I don’t think I’ve done anything for more than 300 days in a row—except, the evidence would suggest, breathe.

My writing has improved significantly since I started. And I expect it will continue to. And did I mention the sense of accomplishment? I know I did. But 303 days in a row—it bears repeating.

Still, I wish I could think about something other than water.

Friday 2/24: what commitment looks like

Came through the surgery with flying colors. Faked lucidity long enough to get my Writing Unbound class started yesterday—thanks to our guest teacher, award-winning poet and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Kelley.

Tina talked about what commitment looks like to her: She outlined her own version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where her time flows to writing, rewriting, pitching her writing and then—maybe—to watching a TV show.

She also cited a very convincingly named statistic that 96% of everything we write will be crap. If you know that most of what you write will be bad, churning out the bad stuff puts you that much closer to something good.

And she talked about how writing more is the only way to write better. And to find your writer’s voice. All things I’ve said myself, but it’s always nice to have reinforcement.

That’s my 15 minutes for today folks. And today, that’s about all you’re gonna get.

Political humor today: when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry

political humor is tough these daysHow do you deal with this new Republican administration? Political humor has never been more important; I would venture to guess that it’s also never been harder.

Many comedians report that laypeople have told them to look on the bright side: “This administration will be comedy gold!” Well, yes, if you enjoy your political humor with a side of nuclear annihilation. I’d rather laugh less and live longer. I think many comedians would too.

The people I feel sorriest for (other than all of us—what with the nuclear annihilation and all) are political satirists. With all the bizarre, formerly unthinkable things happening in real life, regular news reports are beginning to sound like satire. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the folks who make their living by dreaming up absurdities.

And some things just aren’t funny. Samantha Bee’s and Stephen Colbert’s humor have sustained me through these crazy times. But Colbert told one joke months ago—maybe as far back as the primaries—that’s stuck in my head like a tuneless earworm. He said—and I’m probably not quoting him correctly:

“This could be an historic election. Hillary Clinton could become our first female president. And Donald Trump could become…our last president.”

I think I snorted derisively at the punchline. Now? Ouch. At the time, I thought he meant that Trump would become a dictator. Now I think about nuclear annihilation. That’s the power of a well-crafted joke: it can mean so many things.

And that’s the problem with political humor today. If Colbert’s joke were a Facebook post, I’d have trouble deciding between the laughing and crying emojis. Hey, Mark Zuckerberg, we need an emoji for “I’d be amused if I weren’t also nauseated”?

Political humor with rhythm & rhyme

That new emoji would come in handy when reading my friend’s daily limericks. After numerous requests from his Facebook readers, he’s collected them on a blog, TrumPoetry: A Lament in Limericks, and I commend them to your attention. He’s chosen to remain anonymous in the blogosphere so I shall not out him here. All you really need to know is that he’s got a keen grasp of poetic meter, a finely honed sense of irony, and a working internet connection.

My favorite—and also, in this complex world, least favorite—is the verse he penned after the Russian-consulting General Lynch was forced to resign:

His speech is a train of digressions
Leaving untruthful impressions
He can lie with impunity
‘Cause he’ll get immunity
From Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.

Impeccable rhymes. And the last line—it’s as if Mama and Papa Sessions planned for their baby boy to be immortalized in a limerick. Clever, absolutely. Funny? Maybe. If it weren’t so likely to be true.


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Make America America Again – lessons from Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes offers an alternative to "Make America Great Again"
Langston Hughes, photo by Gordon Parks, 1943

We’ve gotten used to seeing the red hats: “Make America Great Again.” I found the seeds of a slogan that resonates better with me in an article last week on the step-up in deportations: Make America America Again. Not such a great acronym—MAAA—but it’s a lovely vision.

I have to credit the poet Langston Hughes. The Huffington Post article on the anti-immigrant raids quoted a bit of his poem “Let America Be America Again.” Here’s the full text—scroll down in the box below to get it all.

Make America America: See it through someone else’s eye

I used to have a newspaper clipping over my desk. I saved it for the headline: “For the Clearest View, Use Someone Else’s Eye.” Langston Hughes—an African American, most probably gay; doubly an outsider in his own country—offers a crystal clear view of America in his era. And, sadly, in ours as well.

The first few stanzas of the poem read like a patriotic hymn:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

But before we can wallow in those noble sentiments, Hughes corrects the picture:

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Then he catalogues the oppressed, by race, by class, by birth, detailing the ways they’ve been beaten down or turned away by forces in this country. Still, he finds optimism:

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The irony stings—enslaving people to build a “free” nation. Yet there’s hope, people hanging onto a daring dream “so strong, so brave, so true.” Langston Hughes must have had a deep reservoir of optimism about this country that had so mistreated him, and treated his ancestors even worse. Because despite all the wrongs, he still wants to save his country, to make America America again:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Optimism: still justified?

“Let America Be America Again” may be the most patriotic poem I’ve ever read. Not the easy, jingo-istic patriotism of the folks who slap a flag on their lapel and then pursue their selfish objectives. But the patriotism born of true love, a patriotism that can see the worst this country can dish out (well, the worst to date) and still see the power of community to knit us back together.

I’ll be reading more Langston Hughes. And praying that his optimism is still justified.


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Hope from the next generation – Song (well, poem) for a Sunday

Hope seems in short supply sometimes, but the next generation is inspiring. I thought you might enjoy meeting one of them today.

the next generation of poets
Photo of Nina Donovan from her Facebook page, published on DailyMail.com

Nineteen-year-old poet Nina Donovan wrote the breathtaking poem Ashley Judd performed at the Women’s March on Washington a couple of weeks ago. And writers take note: she knew “#NastyWoman” would offend some people, but:

“…if I keep censoring myself then it’s not art. It’s no longer me.”

In this profile on i-D, she talks about her inspiration for the piece:

“I wrote it on the night of the presidential debate in which Trump called Hillary a ‘nasty woman,’….I immediately went to my phone and made notes. I literally couldn’t stop writing, I got so heated and passionate. I didn’t know it at the time but it was the longest piece I’d ever written. Later, I researched the issues I wanted to include. I wanted it to be a mixture of facts and opinions. This election was the first time I’d voted and I want to stay looped in, I have to stay educated.”

Shaping the next generation of poets, and leaders

Donovan found her way to poetry through a nonprofit called Southern Word, whose founders believe:

Through words, all youth claim the power and hope to determine their future.

She benefited from some of Southern Word’s workshops and gives back by helping to run them in schools. As she told i-D:

“Some of the kids have never heard of spoken word before, or it’s their first time writing a poem.” Inspiring other young people to use their voices is crucial she says, “because my generation is going to be the one that creates change.”

Indeed they will. The next generation is already doing us proud.

Here’s Donovan’s performance. Enjoy.

What makes America famous? We get to choose – Song for a Sunday

It’s not the song I thought I’d be writing about today—Harry Chapin‘s “What Made America Famous.”

Harry Chapin wrote the song "What Makes America Famous"
Harry Chapin in concert Photo By Cindy Funk (harry61880) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I went to YouTube in search of his “She Sings Her Song Without Words.” I thought I’d juxtapose the “song without words” with the song without music of the powerful poem Ashley Judd delivered at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend.

But as I was listening to Chapin sing his sweet, very of-the-era love song, I noticed a video in the sidebar called “What Made America Famous.” As a long-haired, guitar-playing teen I was a Chapin fan back in the day. But I couldn’t quite place the song title.

So I clicked on the video and heard something I need to share with you.

It’s a typical Chapin story-song—an eternity at seven minutes long, but the length is part of what makes it work.

The length and the rhythm lull you into complacency as he sings about the mom-and-apple-pie things that “made America famous.” He builds the intensity as he approaches contemporary life, the Vietnam-era world neatly divided between the “us” and “them.” “Us” always being white, middle-class and “them” the hippies, people of color, people stuck at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Disposable people. We don’t know anything about that world today, do we?

Chapin could have ended his song on a hopeful note, a Norman Rockwell picture of comity. But he knows that’s only part of the story. So sit tight ’til the end.

What makes America famous? Our choices

Chapin wrote the song in 1974. A lot has changed in our country since then. Or at least it has seemed that way to those of us in the “us” category. I have no doubt the country will change more before the song marks its 50th anniversary, just two presidential elections from now. But I’m not sure things will get better.

So join Harry in a primal scream:

Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Is anybody there?

And when you’re done screaming. Think about these words from another Chapin song, the words engraved on his gravestone:

Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world

How we answer that question will determine what makes America famous going forward.


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