The Nobel Prize in literature felicitates what poets and writers dream of : the mastery over the creative forms ,the ability to influence the literary trends, to visualize, to dream, and to narrate human conditions elevated from fall. Nobel’s condition for a “greatest benefit to mankind” getting the reward was extended to a “(benefit) in an ideal direction” for literature. The notion of “ideal” is open to interpretation and has changed in keeping with the years’ changing minds who occupied the Swedish Academy.
One thing that rises to mind is why poetry is not as much rewarded as prose, for out of the 105 Nobel prizes since 1901 to 2010,only about a fifth or about 20 poets are Nobel laureates.
One obvious reason is that a novel’s true value, contrary to a poem, lies in the fact that what the author has to say never gets swallowed up in the reader’s experiencing a multitude of experiences which is what is derived from the literary, figurative and sonic effects of the poem. It is very difficult, unless the poet truly has some worldview, to show the gifted genius that the Nobels reward. The poem must not only be world literature and convey a message but also be a poem in the true sense of the word.
When is a poem called a poem, and when does it approach world literature? For instance, it is known that a poem is a very personal experience of the poet – his emotions communicated to the reader through imagery and sounds of words. The reader can understand, or sympathise with the poet’s feelings or with the event that created the poem provided the poet is successful in recreating the instance that generated his feelings as the germinating ground of creativity and adult confidence. The outward and the objective must dive into the inner and subjective. In addition, the poet’s language of expression, religious faiths, literary schools and party aims should in no way stand in the way of understanding his ideas or the perfection of it as a harmonized whole in the backdrop of world literature; to grasp his writing style should in no way be hampered by the poet’s affiliation to a special school of thought, or his taste as expressed in the earnestness of his appeal – whether austere and inward-looking or extroverted and opulent must touch the reader and not alienate. It is then that a poem becomes world literature.
A prose writer would say that he deserves accolades because what he says cannot be missed. He is committed to convey his message through his writing. Not so for poetry. Poetry can be appreciated even if the poem is not completely comprehended. Having said this, to interpret poems requires patience and leisure. With the Nobel Prize for literature, the rare occasions when poetry has been successful are the result of its message having been deciphered. The embellishments of imagination in no way prevented its comprehension.
There are a couple of qualities immanent in world class poems. According to the Swedish Academy, it looks for humanistic tendencies in the writing – that is the literary must be couched in the universal and the humane for it to be truly world literature. Without disrespecting Nobel’s idea that did not like to show political affinities, Czeslaw Milosz of Poland was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980 for his poems. Actually, Milosz’s nomination was suspect as he had been a defector from the Polish communist government’s administrative service. His dissidence was a cause of concern for the Nobel committee when deciding whether he should get the prize. In the face of upheavals within the Polish government which was facing opposition from civilians in revolt supported by Milosz from outside Poland, his poems couldn’t be ignored any longer. In the end, the award was given, and a little later the Polish communist government fell in 1981.We must see that his poetry was a denial of the formalities of poetic form in favour of its power of conveying his message:” “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?”. If we look at his poems ,we find there a throbbing urgency to evoke in man his idealism. One cannot but see in Milosz’s poem “Child of Europe”(1946) his tears, his suffering and above all, his belief in man’s ability to change the status quo:
“Let your words speak not through their meanings
but through them against whom they are used.
Fashion your weapon from ambiguous words.
Consign clear words to lexical limbo.
Judge no words before the clerks have checked
In their card index by whom they were spoken.
The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history.”
It was no wonder therefore that he was chosen to receive the Nobel prize that saw the poem’s literary value when it was most avant-garde – freedom of man.
If we go back to the literature prize of 1917, we find that it was shared equally by Karl Adolph Gjellerup for poetry and Henrik Pontoppidan for prose. It was wartime and the Swedish Academy put ‘neutrality towards war’ as a criterion while choosing their nominees. The Danes were selected: Gjellerup for his poems like Brynhild (1884) and Thamyris (1887) both of which were so esteemed that he was given a state pension for life, and Pontoppidan for his novels of Danish life.
This is the second quality of great poetry: originality of thought, which Gjellerup demonstrated in Brynhild.The theme is the Volsunga saga where destiny plays an important part in the meeting and estrangement of Sigurd and Brunhilde.But the two lovers dream and pine for each other about which, the Swedish critic, Sven Soderman wrote” This waiting, full of torment, this quiet desire, imbues with sentiment the tragedy which is presented with strength and with great poetic and pictorial richness.” He adds:” The scope of the work is due to its depth and form; through its idealism and moral elevation it contrasts absolutely with the other productions of the naturalistic period during which it was written.” Another novel, Pilgrimen Kamanita (1907) is equally felicitated for its singular fascination left on the mind of the reader. About Kamanita, Soderman feels that the “poet seems to have penetrated into the spiritual life of a far-off people and to have expressed their dreams of it with the visionary’s gift. In certain passages of this poem one finds the spirit of the Arabian Nights, and certain parts…present a penetrating picture of the sumptuous magnificence of the life of the blessed.” In Soderman’s critical essay of Gjellerup,he is defined as a “scholar and a poet (who has his) thought charged with emotion, a great knowledge of the soul, a great desire for beauty and a poetic art (which) have given birth to works of enduring value.”
Pontopiddan’s novels, on the other hand, seek to change by laying bare the man. Sartre believed that literature should ask men to take responsibility, and nothing that prose should say should be missed by the reader.Henrik Pontoppidan’s works are this and beyond by becoming revolutionary, in the sense that he lets his characters speak against fetishes of”false authority, romanticism, superstitious belief in beautiful phrases, and the intoxication of lofty words, exalted sentiments, and moral fear.”
The “ideal” of the Nobel prize in literature has been generously interpreted to allow the prize to be won by poets like Rabindranath who was internationally revered after the publication of the English translations of Geetanjali (1912), which in the words of Harald Hjarne, Chairman of Swedish Academy, have been “bestowed…a new dress, alike perfect in form and personally original in inspiration. This has made them accessible to all in England, America, and the entire Western world for whom Nobel literature is of interest and moment.” One English critic had even said of his poems as “(combining) at once the feminine grace of poetry with the virile power of prose.”
Alfred Nobel’s will paved the way for the Nobel prize, awarded annually to the five fields of Physics,Chemistry,medicine,peace and literature. He believed that these five were instrumental in world’s progress. While literature’s expressions of the ideal in human emotions, or beliefs or ability of observation of life are sine qua non for awarding the literature prize, an essential criteria of any Nobel prize has been a progressively better understanding of life’s truth, which is another way of saying that Man wasn’t satisfied to hunt for food and procreate but also investigated his consciousness. Just as he has tried to explore the abysmal vastness of space, he has gone to the depths of his soul to discover for himself what a puny creature he is compared to the universe he inhabits. His life would have been shocking picture of relentless struggle against the unpredictability of nature, had literature not given that extra verve to the mundane of life by letting imagination get the better of man and the ineluctability of Death.
As far as Alfred Nobel is concerned, he was a misanthrope but not a recluse. He was enormously interested in literature as evident from his letters written to business associates,family,friends and acquaintances like Bertha Von Suttner according to whom Alfred Nobel “seemed to be unhappy,misanthropic,highly cultured, and to hold a deeply philosophical view of the world.” Among his few friends in Paris where he had settled for sometime between 1873 and1891 was Juliette Adam-Lamber whose literary salon he would frequent and get to meet Victor Hugo, Pierre Loti, Paul Bourget and Maupassant. Nobel wrote and read poetry, and started drafts of analytical novels but never finished them because his own inventions and business activities left him very little time for such artistic pursuits.