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Current Issue

No. 70

Editorial by Paul Munden

On 14 October I woke to an email from a friend in York, saying how he looked forward to hearing my thoughts about this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn’t mention who it was. While I was finding out and retrieving my dropped jaw, I managed to miss ABC?Radio here in Canberra phoning me for comment, probably a very good thing.

As you’ll perhaps gather from the above, I am not the world’s biggest Dylan fan. I’m choosing my words carefully: my Canberra colleague, Professor Jen Webb, who was more prompt in accepting ABC’s call, went on to write a (highly considered) piece for The Conversation and received hate mail for days; read her article, if you haven’t already, and be baffled by that vicious response.

My own further thoughts here are hardly spontaneous, but I hope I would have mustered some of them that morning, if put on the spot. Firstly, I know that many significant poets rate Dylan’s lyrics very highly and consider him a major influence on their work. Andrew Motion is one; Simon Armitage is another ( and his comments are interesting, not least because his admiration wasn’t instant. They help me understand how I too might come to think differently. That reflective zone is surely essential, but it’s what hard-core fans (of Dylan, of anyone) seem not to tolerate. They expect universal reverence, which all too easily spills into something ugly. I’ve witnessed the occasional author event being treated more like a rally – a clan in its mindless bubble – and surely that’s the last thing we want literature to look like. Those blinkered fans need to accept that a Dylan lyric, entered into any number of ‘open’ poetry competitions, might well not even make the commended list. 

Jen Webb’s main point in her Conversation article was that the Nobel judges had made a category error, but perhaps, today, categories do need to be blurred; literature, after all, connects with so many. I recently welcomed Simon Armitage to the University of Canberra, as part of the Poetry on the Move festival hosted by the International Poetry Studies Institute. In introducing him, I mentioned his Ivor Novello Award – for song-writing – as one of his credentials as a poet. Poets do their art a great favour if they defy its categorization. 

The Nobel Prize is unusual: it is not for writers of a particular genre or from a particular part of the world. More than any other prize it has the freedom to do exactly what it’s just done: point out how literature (or should we simply say writing) of value can be found in unexpected places (perhaps even, one day, as I saw suggested on a facebook post, within a video game). I’m a believer in poetry occupying non-traditional space: in scientific conference reports; on beer mats; on the underground. Maybe I’m a fan of the category error.

The Nobel, however, is also a prize of exceptional esteem. What I think many people look for in the Nobel Prize is something of outstanding humanitarian value. Some no doubt claim that for Dylan, but I can’t forget his comments at Live Aid, where he expressed his wish that some of the money should go to poor American farmers. That is not humanitarian thinking (or indeed any kind of thinking) of a very high order. He should perhaps be forgiven that comment (which has of course been excised from the official concert DVD), though when awarding something of the significance of the Nobel Prize I would have thought that such minutiae would be scrutinized. 

Within the pages of this magazine we have freedom to ignore compartments and rules. We hope that those working in higher education will be interested in how school teachers deal with creative writing, and vice versa. We do have a style guide – and urge people to take note of it! – but we are prepared to risk publishing material presented in a different form, if it makes an interesting case. You’ll find it soon enough...

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