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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

34 Comments

  1. Tom Marshall
    October 14, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

    I generally agree with you (although I am far more of a fan of Dylan than you are, that’s more or less by-the-by in terms of the points made). I don’t especially think his work necessarily looks all that good just on the page (why should it? It wasn’t written to just sit on a page in a book) – it needs to be clothed in the unique singularity that is the event of its being sung and its being listened to. This is also why reading something like the Iliad, the Odyssey or Beowulf is slightly missing the point unless you read it aloud.

    The thing that pleases me though is the thing that pleases you: that this is a great two fingers up at the fuckwittery of “categorising” everything and boxing it all off until we are trapped in limitations of our own making. Literature is and should be an immensely varied, flexible thing, and if that includes extending the definition of the lyric to allow songwriting to bustle in next to verse and set up its stall there, and upset a few people who probably need upsetting, I’m all ears.

    Have you read the Christopher Ricks book on Dylan? I suspect not, if you’re not Dylan’s biggest fan, as it’s 500 pages of (in some cases) line-by-line analysis of Dylan’s lyrics, but worth knowing it exists. It’s a terrific piece of work, even if some no doubt think it odd that Ricks devotes 4 pages of analysis to a 2-line song. And Ricks is about as highly regarded a literary critic as one gets.

    The best Dylan responses to somebody trying to analyse his lyrics and ask what his songs were about remains “Well, some of them are about three minutes, and some of them are about five minutes.”

    Reply

  2. Austin Loomis
    October 14, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

    “a song is anything that can walk by itself – I am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person – some people say that I am a poet”
    — liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home

    Reply

  3. Thomas
    October 14, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

    I don’t know if you’ve ever read Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat”, but he has an excellent introduction where he discusses the difference between lyrics and poetry, saying that poetry can be read aloud while lyrics have to have music to really breathe properly. He points out Oklahoma’s “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” as an example–if you were to read Hammerstein’s lyrics on the page:
    “Oh what a beautiful morning,
    Oh what a beautiful day,
    I’ve got a beautiful feeling,
    Everything’s goin’ my way!”

    They’re obnoxiously simple, but when paired with Rodgers’ music, they absolutely soar. Sondheim also takes this in the other direction, and points out that because of the music, lyrics can’t be overly poetic either, or else they get stuffed up within the music and strangle the whole thing. Honestly, I highly recommend the whole book as a really great look into lyric-writing and all the craft and technique that goes into it.

    Reply

    • Nat
      October 14, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

      I’d disagree with that last bit. A lot of rap/hip-hop lyrics are amazingly poetic and clever and convoluted and complex and multi-layered, and yet some of them also work amazingly well as music.

      some of the best bits of /Hamilton/ are prime examples of this. Ditto Fort Minor. Or, going a bit more traditional, parts of /Jesus Christ Superstar/.

      It’s harder, no question–and plenty of hip-hop falls on its face precisely because it’s trying to do this, or resorts to very simple music as a result of the complex lyrics.

      But I’m particularly drawn to music that is simultaneously lyrically complex and musically complex. (And not much of a Dylan fan, in part I suspect because of that.)

      Reply

      • Kiki Basco
        October 15, 2016 @ 1:54 am

        If you’re talking musical theater, The Music Man is the indisputable pinnacle of words-that-work-as-music-in-their-own-right. Would it be exaggerating to say that something like 50% of the show is onomatopoeia?

        Reply

    • homunculette
      October 15, 2016 @ 8:05 am

      I think something like Joanna Newsom’s “Leaving the City” proves that you can have really complex, intricate lyrics (she has several different rhyme schemes and meters running at once) as long as it sounds good when you sing it.

      Reply

      • Thomas
        October 16, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

        Well, I don’t think Sondheim is saying lyrics can’t be complex or intricate (I mean…this is Sondheim. You don’t write Company and then try to argue that lyrics can’t be complex)–merely that overly poetic lyrics often don’t work. Meaning that a lyric that tries to do all the heavy lifting within itself and ignores the music will necessarily be swallowed up when it is set to music.

        I mean, that’s the key–the vast majority of poetry doesn’t need music, where lyrics obviously requires it. When a lyricist ignores the impact the music is gonna have on the text, you get some really strangled lyrics.

        Reply

  4. Shannon
    October 14, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

    Like you, I like and respect but am not a huge Dylan fan. (For the same reason, too.) But the discussion of “words on the page” vs. sung reminds me of one of my favorite bands, the Manic Street Preachers. On the page, their lyrics are a mess in terms of rhythm and pace. But sung, their lead singer manages to make them work amazingly. It does bring up the question that if you have two different people writing the words and the music, is the one writing the words the only one to get credit? Dylan’s an easy win because he did both, so perhaps they’ll just limit it to singer /songwriters in the future for the sake of simplicity.

    Reply

    • Tom Marshall
      October 14, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

      Yes, there are quite a few artists who – purely because of the way they sing, whether it’s choked or weirdly whooping or whatever – can make rather leaden words positively sparkle.

      Johnny Cash and Neil Young would be two of my other picks. Cash’s words are often terribly plain (they were once satirised by the Axis of Awesome as “I done a crime,/Yes I done a crime,/It was a bad thing that I did,/I went and done a crime”, which is painfully accurate) and yet somehow, especially in his aging years, they are transcendentally beautiful.

      Reply

    • D.N.
      October 14, 2016 @ 11:41 pm

      “But the discussion of “words on the page” vs. sung reminds me of one of my favorite bands, the Manic Street Preachers. On the page, their lyrics are a mess in terms of rhythm and pace. But sung, their lead singer manages to make them work amazingly.”

      I can only imagine the insane task James had trying to set Richey’s lyrics of “P.C.P.” to music…

      Reply

  5. Dan
    October 14, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    It’s true most lyrics need the music to come into their own (e.g. the chorus to Like a Rolling Stone), but in this case you need the whole verse to appreciate that verse of Mr Tambourine Man, and in fact the one people have been quoting doubles back on itself and extends to thirteen lines, a highpoint in rock lyrics I believe.

    Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
    Down the foggy ruins of time
    Far past the frozen leaves
    The haunted frightened trees
    Out to the windy bench
    Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
    Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
    With one hand waving free
    Silhouetted by the sea
    Circled by the circus sands
    With all memory and fate
    Driven deep beneath the waves

    Really I think it’s ultimately semantics whether you say lyricist or poet. Dylan brought poetry into pop lyrics, before The Beatles, The Velvets, and so on, influencing everybody, who go in their turn influence to influence literature to a degree. You’ll find antecedents, but it’s a fair claim he created forms that didn’t exist before.

    You can read most of the lyrics off that same album as poetry, and Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. They are lyrics, but I think Dylan is a great American poet. One of the greatest. (And many poets would agree!)

    Reply

    • David Anderson
      October 14, 2016 @ 9:41 pm

      I think Phil’s unfair to call them ferociously tight iambics (quite apart from the first two lines are trochaic – note how the third line modulates to iambic on the first foot). They don’t stand out by comparison with nineteenth century or sixteenth century poetry. (Donne: Go and catch a falling star.)

      Reply

      • Elizabeth Sandifer
        October 14, 2016 @ 10:41 pm

        I parse them as iambic with leading stressed syllables – both mind and time are stressed, notably.

        As for Donne, you mean the poem originally printed with the title “Song”?

        Reply

        • David Anderson
          October 15, 2016 @ 11:37 am

          (To be clear, I’m not disagreeing with your basic argument. The Times they are a’changing passage does not work as a poem at all.)
          It’s fairly common in English to curtail the last foot of a trochaic line to give it a strong ending. For example – and this is a poem, not a song – the usual musical setting wrecks it:

          In the *bleak midwinter
          *Frosty *wind made *moan

          Both lines are formally stressed on the odd-numbered syllables, but the second line is cut short.

          In the first two Tamborine man lines cited, the stresses equally fall on odd-numbered syllables.
          By contrast:
          *Out to the *windy *bench
          is a iambic line that starts with a leading stressed syllable.

          I did mischievously cite the Donne yesterday in response to a claim that songs aren’t literature. But I don’t think anyone in the last four hundred years has ever thought it doesn’t work without the music. But:
          Because I could not stop for death
          He kindly stopped for me.
          (It’s in common measure, so you could sing it. But would you want to?)

          Actually, Burns would illustrate the difference between a great poet and a great songwriter, because he’s both, but his poems are not songs and his songs not poems.
          The difference between:

          I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
          Has broken Nature’s social union,
          An’ justifies that ill opinion,
          Which makes thee startle,
          At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
          An’ fellow-mortal!

          and
          Or were I in the wildest waste,
          Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
          The desart were a paradise,
          If thou wert there, if thou wert there.

          is not that the second has a tighter metre than the first.

          Reply

    • Peeeeeeet
      October 15, 2016 @ 10:17 am

      That’s five lines in a row that end adjective-noun. That’s fine, even good, in lyrics, but I can’t think of a first-rank poet who would get away with that. Maybe Yeats, but even he would do it with more formal discipline, because he actually valued that.

      (Incidentally, while I agree with most everything Phil says, the Nobel committee did say Dylan “creat[ed] new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, so I’m not sure they see the two as distinct as Phil suggests.)

      If they wanted to extend literature to include popular music, they could have done that and still avoided reinforcing their long-standing male bias:


      Still I sent up my prayer
      Wondering where it had to go
      With heaven full of astronauts
      And the Lord on death row

      […]

      You’ve had lots of lovely women
      Now you turn your gaze to me
      Weighing the beauty and the imperfection
      To see if I’m worthy
      Like the church
      Like a cop
      Like a mother
      You want me to be truthful
      Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon though
      And I need your approval

      Reply

      • Dan
        October 15, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

        I think this is solved ultimately by breaking down the distinction between poetry and lyrics, and Dylan is the one to do that for. He’s inherited and transmitted every song tradition imaginable, and added to it. Much ancient poetry was sung (even if we now read it) or declaimed. Anglo-Saxon poetry in the hands of a good bard I’m sure had a fierce spoken rhythm; then there’s the half-spoken half-chanted American sermon. See Allen Ginsberg for just one Dylan connection to that.

        And indeed I think Phil’s absolutely right that Blake’s Innocence and Experience were also written as songs. They’re called songs, of course, and Blake was known to sing them to lute accompaniment, while “professors of music” wrote down his distinctive melodies. (Where are they now?)

        I don’t see the problem with repetition of adjective-noun. Why not? Why draw attention away from what you’re really doing with pointless switcheroos? It works for what the verse wants to do, maintaining a rhythmic tension until the long line, “the twisted reach of crazy sorry”, and then going back round and doing the same thing. (Although I left out the last line.) In fact perhaps the song is exhibits some of the poetical cosmic circus skills that Dylan attributes to the eponymous subject. Again, this is one the more spacious examples of a Dylan poetic lyric, probably halfway between the sparest, only really working well as lyrics (most of Under the Red Sky, for a start?) and the densest, which stands up as poetry – although we bear in mind it’s a lyric. (E.g. Desolation Row.)

        I honestly don’t buy the takes complaining about Dylan being male (or in some cases white, ignoring the fact that he’s Jewish), and this comment excepted the two that spring to mind were written by people who actively dislike Dylan for his singing (and from that everything), or have no interest or awareness of Dylan’s achievements and influence at all.

        Reply

        • Peeeeeeet
          October 15, 2016 @ 10:49 pm

          I think this is solved ultimately by breaking down the distinction between poetry and lyrics

          Well, in recent months I’ve been coming to the conclusion that the breaking down of the distinction between cinema and television drama is to the detriment of both, or at least to a narrowing of what is considered valuable in either.

          I don’t see the problem with repetition of adjective-noun

          I don’t have a big problem with it, I just would be surprised to encounter it in a poem.

          Here’s another angle: When Pratchett died there were thinkpieces that attempted to reinvent him as a peer of Shakespeare. They were well-meaning, but the subtext was that being a prolific and popular writer of light comic fantasy was a shameful thing, and his reputation needed to be hauled out of it. I think it makes more sense to value what someone we respect does more, rather than pretend they’re actually doing something else that we already respect more. Because that actually reinforces the very artistic class system that it’s ostensibly trying to get away from.

          I honestly don’t buy the takes complaining about Dylan being male

          The problem isn’t with Dylan being male, it’s with systemic bias. The thing about systemic bias is that any isolated example of it can usually be easily excused.

          Reply

          • Dan
            October 15, 2016 @ 11:51 pm

            I don’t mean to break the distinction down completely. I’m just trying to give reasons for the distinction being not so absolute, and not absolute in a way that is especially relevant to Dylan. The situation with cinema and TV is quite different. (And considerably more recent, even if the story starts long before either.) But of course there is a crossover; and of course they are distinct.

            I don’t think the Pratchett analogy helps. Dylan doesn’t need this prize. His stature in the future is going to grow and grow, and it was going to already.

            And of course individual cases can always be “excused”, but here it doesn’t need excusing.

            Leonard Cohen today: “To me [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

            Yeah. Exactly that.

    • Dan
      October 15, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

      Bench? That should be “out to the windy beach”.

      Reply

  6. KvetchingTurtle
    October 14, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

    As yourself, I generally don’t care much for the Nobel Prizes (Any of them really), and I don’t know enough about either poetry or song-writing to comment on that.

    I do however want to note, and have for a very long time wanted to, that unlike the general conception and my own proto-type of the Nobel Prize in Litterature, the actual prize itself is not designed specifically for fiction or fictional writing.

    The Dynamite King’s will, the most pertinent guiding document as far as I know, states it will be rewarded to:

    “…the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”

    What “ideal direction” means is a bit more up to interpretation, but the field of litterature really does just mean that field of the written work.

    So, while I doubt many would want a collection of bathroom jokes to win it, if the Committee were so inclined they could award it to great works of social science, or even psychology.

    They’ve earlier done it for history and philosophy, though Churchill’s prize was presumable a reverse Peace Prize, so I believe that the Swedish Academy ought to give it a think whether they want to induce not only the world of fiction writers into the mountain of inane bullshittery that is Nobel Prize speculation, but also pull into its odious, all-consuming tidal wave the whole fields of social sciences, everything from linguistics and gender studies to litterature criticism (Has that ever won?)!

    Those fields have too little petty infighting (Almost none, right? Right? ), so why not bring them into the Nobel fold?

    Reply

  7. Tim B.
    October 14, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

    To me lyrics have always been like dialogue in comics – it’s something that exists to refine the meaning and provide a pacing for other parts of the art but on it’s own it’s very much chocolate fireguard territory. Take a listen to some of my favourite music from Can – Mooney & Suzuki’s words on paper come across as gibberish but they work to provide a mesmerizing coherence to the groove going on behind them, much like Kirby’s bizarre dialogue can.

    The preoccupation of music criticism on lyrics as opposed to music mirrors comics criticism fetishisation of the Writer as the driving force of the medium and speaks to a literary bias of the critics and a failure to grasp what comics actually are rather than anything that’s going on in the ‘text’ (a word that demonstrates the biases at work).

    Reply

    • Matt
      October 14, 2016 @ 9:15 pm

      Tim B – “The preoccupation of music criticism on lyrics…” Indeed. Agree. Part of the issue is that many popular music journalists don’t have a strong background in music itself – they are more likely to have studied English, journalism, or cultural studies. And their readership are likewise not so interested in chord-structures as how cool the band are and they mean, etc.

      There are exceptions. Alex Ross – who writes mainly about classical music – has a background in composition. Simon Reynolds – who has no musical training to my knowledge – writes extensively about the subjective experience of sound & music.

      Reply

  8. AG
    October 14, 2016 @ 8:13 pm

    Can we get more music theory analyses on this site? If this is what you can write for songs you don’t much care for, I’d love to read what you have for music you do like.

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      October 14, 2016 @ 10:38 pm

      Ha. Delighted I was able to make it look like that would be a good idea, but alas my knowledge of music theory consists of a now nearly twenty year old high school course, and this post represents the furthest extent of what I can do.

      Reply

      • Kiki Basco
        October 15, 2016 @ 1:34 am

        I personally thought the bits where you broke down the theoretical oddness of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” were far and away the best parts of your 33 1/3.

        Reply

  9. Rob
    October 15, 2016 @ 1:57 am

    I like Dylan, but it seems wrongheaded to present this decision as some sort of toppling of hierarchies. The only time most Americans will hear of an African or Asian author is if they win the Nobel, and there are numerous such candidates that are richly deserving. In many cases, it can result in translations that would otherwise never occur. Presenting the prize to an already-famous white male American seems like a wasted opportunity, and it seems worth noting that the last four awards in Literature went to white Westerners. Which is not to say that the award has to go to an obscure writer every year — just that picking a writer unknown in America is not just a “middle finger to the American literary establishment”, and may in fact have nothing to do with the United States.

    Of course, I really don’t expect genuine internationalism from an organization that gave Peace Prizes to Obama and the European Union. But to me the value of awards, if there is one, is either to highlight an under-known text or record a critical consensus of the field. This Nobel just tells us that some old European guys thought Bob Dylan was really deep.

    Reply

  10. Desdemona.GC
    October 15, 2016 @ 6:31 am

    It smacks of an award, and its association, that is fading into irrelevance trying to become ‘current’ and ‘edgy’. But not with an award in the hard sciences, but one more subjective.

    Reply

  11. David Anderson
    October 15, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    Sticking the middle finger up to any literary establishment that is parochial enough to think Philip Roth deserves the prize seems an entirely justifiable thing to do.
    For all his formal brilliance in invoking and then subverting the roman-a-clef format, Roth is basically writing about and for men who were sexually active after widespread contraception but before widespread feminism. And the formal brilliance is just a surface brilliance (compare Saramago). To later generations he’ll date horribly.

    Reply

  12. Daibhid Ceannaideach
    October 15, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

    When I try reading “Mr Tambourine Man” aloud, I have to make a concious decision not to sing, and then I have to make another concious decision not to be doing a Bill Shatner parody.

    You’re right, it doesn’t sound very good.

    Reply

    • Dan
      October 16, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

      Matter of taste, I suppose.

      Reply

      • Daibhid C
        October 16, 2016 @ 7:34 pm

        I was trying to humorously suggest that the problem in my particular case might be more with my recitation than with the words.

        Reply

        • Dan
          October 16, 2016 @ 11:33 pm

          Haha. Sorry, I think when it comes to Dylan, my sense of humour is in danger of climbing out the window. (I think Dylan’s is rather subtle too.)

          Reply

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