Friday, October 21, 2016

RIP Kelly & Antin + Dylan A No Show So Far + Nobel Thinkers

Brigit Pegeen Kelly (Academy of American Poets)

I was very sorry to learn via Twitter that poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly had passed away. I still have not seen an obituary so I will write only what I know about her, which is that she was born in California in 1951, had taught for many years at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and was the author of several acclaimed books whose lyricism is nearly peerless. James Merrill selected her first collection, To the Place of Trumpets (1987), for the Yale Younger Poets Series prize, and her second collection, Song (1995), received the  Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Her third collection, The Orchard (2004), was a finalist for numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics' Circle Award.

I was fortunate to meet and hear Kelly read and speak when she came to visit Northwestern back in 2008 as part of the Creative Writing Program's annual Festival of Writing. I remember that she was very shy and asked that we have a guided conversation, providing her with the questions in advance, which was a departure from the usual approach, but she participated without a hitch, and I still have the notes I took from her responses. Best of all was her reading, in which the poems themselves set the air on fire. Lyric poetry can be many things, and Kelly's work represents the best of one stand in that larger tradition; the poems achieve what a great deal of literature, as Oscar Wilde suggested aspires to, "the condition of song," while being very much in and of a contemporary idiom, shot through with traces of myth and ritual, and with emotion so profound that in a lesser poet it might overwhelm the art.

Kelly's output, though slender, was of the highest quality. Right after her reading I blogged one exquisite example of her work, "Iskandariya," which can stand against entire books, to put it kindly. Lastly, I know that one of her finest acts in the literary world was selecting for the National Poetry Series Leadbelly, the first collection by one of my favorite fellow poets, Tyehimba Jess. To her family I send my sympathies, and to her I say, Rest in Peace and Poetry.

Poet David Antin's death today marked another loss for the world of literature. Born in New York City in 1932 and a graduate of City College and NYU, Antin began his career as a translator of business manuals and fiction before shifting to poetry. He and his wife Eleanor Antin, the well known conceptual and performance artist, moved to southern California in 1968 so that he could take up a teaching position in San Diego, and by 1971, Antin had begun to pioneer his improvisatory audience-and-context specific poems, or "talk-pieces," for which he became quite famous. I unfortunately never had the opportunity to see Antin perform live, but have read his books for years, and have watched some of his more recent performances, including several in Paris in 2011. You can find one here. May he also RIP.


Bob Dylan, by Andyp57
After last week's literary absurdity--or postmodern coup, as you may see it--in which the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan, for "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Yeah, OK, if you say so. (Compare the Kelly poem above to most of what Dylan has written, and...well, maybe don't, if you don't want to throw up your hands in exasperation.) At any rate, the Baby Boomers' beloved bard from Hibbing, Minnesota, has not seen fit to respond publicly to his Nobel prize benefactors--out of indifference? embarrassment? truculence?--and instead actually removed a note on his website mentioning the honor. Swedish Academy member Sarah Danius, who made the award and, with a mostly straight face, compared Dylan to Homer and Sappho, the first the originator of the Greek epic tradition, and the second one of the great figures in early European lyric poetry, seems fairly unconcerned by this, but another member, writer Per Wästberg, who holds Chair No. 12, publicly commented that Dylan's silence was "impolite" and "arrogant."

Wästberg is correct, but then, what did these 17 (one chair is empty) powerful figures think would result when they made what can charitably be described as a "category error," to quote The Conversation, or, to put it another way, as a travesty against the very idea of literature as we know it? (Forgive me, but do Dylan's lyrics, as "poems," hold up against the best 50 random contemporary Anglophone poets of his generation or subsequent ones? NO. And what about the other major poets, writing in a wide variety of languages, who died without even being considered at all for the Nobel Prize, which is for better or worse the most important literary prize in the world.) As I posted on Facebook and elsewhere that I doubted any number of other superb and original English-language songwriters--take Stevie Wonder, say, or Rakim, or Joni Mitchell--let alone any major non-English song writers or singers (Caetano Veloso, Miriam Makeba, Gilberto Gil, etc.), or, to truly invoke the oral tradition, spoken word poets from anywhere, or non-European oral poets and storytellers, like African griots, would be considered at all, and certainly not anytime soon. Does anyone think they will?

After this year's pick perhaps the 2017 prize might--and ought--go to Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, among other entertainments. The Simpsons has been innovative and increasingly global in its influence for several decades now. I can vividly recall a Brazilian poet I know making an analogy in which he cited The Simpsons as if it were standard Brazilian TV entertainment. And it is. In fact, why even consider poets, fiction writers, playwrights, nonfiction writers, creators of hybrid written and imagistic forms, etc. (Or someone who can actually sing?) That's so 20th century and pre-post-literary, no?

Here are award-winning writer Caille Millner's funny and on-point thoughts in the San Francisco Chronicle about Dylan's (non-)response.


In reviewing the case I made a few weeks ago for potential Nobel honorees, I realized that I had completely overlooked one set of recipients whose predecessors the Swedish Academy had recognized, to a limited degree, in the past. I am talking about critical nonfiction writers, particularly philosophers and essayists, which is to say, authors working primarily in and known for work in this genre, whether they also created in other literary forms.

Among this group, past Nobel Laureates include philosophers Bertrand Russell, Henri Bergson, and Jean-Paul Sartre, historians Theodor Mommsen and Rudolf Eucken, and the conservative British politician Sir Winston Churchill.  Before this year's debacle, the most recent Nobel Prize recipient was a creative journalist, Svetlana Alexievich. I decided for a change to crowdsource potential picks should the Swedish Academy return to primarily written genres and forms and bestow its kröner on one of the living critical or philosophical pathblazers of our era.

Among the suggested winners, according to the great folks who posted on my Facebook page, were:

Giorgio Agamben, K. Anthony Appiah, Alain Badiou, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Anne Carson (who'd of course qualify, I'm sure, as a poet, and who has also probably been nominated by now), Fidel Castro, David Chalmers, Noam Chomsky, Edwidge Danticat (also a major fiction writer), Samuel R. Delany (also one of the major living fiction writers), Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Nelson George, Henry Giroux, Jürgen Habermas, bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Saul Kripke, Julia Kristeva, Catherine Malabou, Fred Moten, Reza Negarestani, Sianne Ngai, Martha Nussbaum, Derek Parfit, Paul B. Preciado, Avital Ronell, Sarah Schulman, Peter Sloterdijk, Gayatri Spivak, George Steiner, Charles Taylor, Haunani Kay Trask, Paul Virilio, Alice Walker (a major fiction writer, of course), and Slavoj Zizek.

There are many more potential candidates, including perhaps Houston Baker, Jr. Vint Cerf, Angela Davis, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Basil Fernando, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Paul Gilroy, Byung-Chul Han, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, Rem Koolhaas, Humberto Maturana, Brian Massumi, Bill McKibben, Charles Mills, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Thomas Nagel, Jean-Luc Nancy, Linda Nochlin, Michel Onfray, Arundhati Roy (also an excellent fiction writer), Thomas Scanlan, Peter Singer, David Suzuki, Tvetan Todorov, Sherry Turkle, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, and Sylvia Wynter, to name just a few. Strangely--or perhaps not, given the preponderance of academics on the prize-judging committee--this fertile orchard of brilliant minds, nearly all of whom have produced  important critical--if not creative in the usual sense--literature, apparently is not under consideration at all.

This leads me to think that perhaps just as the Nobel Prize organization, broadly understood, created a new prize in economics in 1969, to be issued by the Royal Bank of Sweden, "in memory of Alfred Nobel," some enormously wealthy Swede--Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA--with a somewhat dicey background, like Nobel's, might spiritually ennoble herself/himself/theirselves by creating a series of new "Nobels," in important fields, including environmental science, mathematics, applied engineering, and critical--and humanistic?--thought. This may not help the creative writers among us, but it may mean recognition for more of the world's greatest minds. Would this be a bad thing? Who would you choose?

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