McCartney is a Dickens for our day, says poet

Sgt. Pepper: In bands and as a solo artist, McCartney has earned a record 29 US No 1 singles.

Should Paul McCartney get a Nobel prize? News of a new 900-page autobiography has sparked comparisons with Charles Dickens – and a claim that the former Beatle is a major literary figure.

In Stockholm, a bespectacled man stands behind a small table, reading out a pre-prepared speech in Swedish. Without warning, a distinctly English name escapes his lips: Paul McCartney. Around the world, publishers and booksellers roar in outrage. How can the Nobel Prize in Literature have been awarded to a pop star?

To be clear: this has not happened – yet.

Awarded annually, the Nobel is the world’s most prestigious literary award. The winner receives nine million Swedish krona – equal to £773,770.50. More importantly, they join a list featuring many of the most respected novelists, poets and playwrights of the modern age.

Few would place McCartney in this company. Although famed for his songwriting, McCartney is regarded by some critics as too popular for this accolade. While fellow Beatle John Lennon was known for his politically-charged lyrics, McCartney has long been accused of writing “remarkably accomplished doodles.”

One expert strongly disagrees. The prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon yesterday anointed McCartney “a major literary figure who… extends the long tradition of poetry in English”.

Later this year, the two Pauls will publish a 900-page, two-volume collection called The Lyrics. Speaking yesterday, Muldoon praised McCartney as a “great mimic,” before comparing McCartney to Charles Dickens in his ability to sketch out characters, and to Lewis Carroll for his visual imagination.

It is often believed that truly great art should be difficult. Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel in 2016, is known for his complex, allusive songs. McCartney’s pleasant little tunes might seem to pale in comparison.

Yet time sometimes looks favourably on clear, simple words. In 1807, the Romantic poet Lord Byron declared the work of his contemporary William Wordsworth “puerile”. Today, Wordsworth’s poems are celebrated for their clarity, while Byron has become better known for his rakish life than his own writings.

For others, however, to compare McCartney to a poet is beside the point. Although music and poetry have shared origins, they are not the same thing. To award a literature prize to a musician could simply be considered a category mistake.

Some say it would also be a wasted opportunity. McCartney has won 18 Grammys, an Oscar, a knighthood and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is the richest musician in history, with a net worth of £91bn.

The Nobel would just be one more trophy for a bulging cabinet. Far better, critics suggest, to award it to a lesser-known writer, for whom the honour would make a significant difference — and whose victory would enable their art to be enjoyed by new audiences.

Should Paul McCartney get a Nobel prize?

Let it be

Yes, some say. Bob Dylan’s surprising victory in 2016 demonstrated that singer-songwriters are eligible to receive the Nobel, and McCartney is arguably the most successful songwriter of all time. We would be foolish to dismiss him on the basis of his simple, optimistic lyrics and melodies: some of the greatest art in history succeeds because of its clarity.

Get back, say others. Literature and music are different disciplines: to give a songwriter a prize intended for writers is like giving a painter an architecture award. If the Nobel committee must reward another musician, it should be a less well-known figure, for whom the award will make a real difference. Besides, McCartney’s lightweight work is simply not worthy of the honour.

You Decide

  1. Which major award would you like to win, and why?
  2. Is a complex work of art always better than a simple one?

Activities

  1. In groups, adapt a poem of your choice into song, then perform it to the class.
  2. Your favourite writer has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Using the examples on the Nobel Prize website for guidance, compose and recite a speech announcing the award, explaining why they deserved to win.

Some People Say...

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words.”

Victor Hugo (1802 — 1885), French poet, novelist and Republican

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is a consensus among literary historians that poetry and music have a shared origin. Ancient epics, such as the Odyssey, circulated through recitation. Many of the oldest poems are believed to be songs, such as hymns of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna and the griot poetry of West Africa. Numerous modern poetic genres, such as the ballad and sonnet, have a direct musical heritage. The link survives today in the Welsh word “cerdd,” which means both “verse” and “music.”
What do we not know?
Scholars are still unclear as to how poetry and song became separate art forms. The 14th Century French canon Guillaume de Machaut has been called "the last great poet who was also a composer.” By the time of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, a generation later, poetry was primarily regarded as a written form. One possible reason is that low literacy rates made literature inaccessible. Historians have estimated literacy in Europe to be between 5 and 15% by the end of the Middle Ages.

Word Watch

Mimic
To imitate or copy someone or something
Charles Dickens
An English writer who wrote during the Victorian era and is well-known for such novels as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol
Lewis Carroll
Best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Carrol’s writings served as direct inspiration for at least two Beatles songs.
Allusive
In literature, an allusion is an indirect reference to another artwork, which the reader must discover themselves.
Romantic
Beginning at the end of the 18th Century, Romanticism was a vast cultural movement that celebrated emotion, individual and nature.
Puerile
juvenile or childish, from a French word meaning “like a boy.”
Category mistake
The term was introduced by the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900 — 1976), who used the example of a visitor to Oxford seeing the colleges then asking “but where is the university?”
The Nobel Prize in Literature
One of five annual prizes established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite. The awards are granted to “those who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”
Beatle
The Fab Four began as a group of musicians in Liverpool before finding success in Germany. They eventually split up in 1970.

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