Leonard Cohen & Chuck Berry Honored With First Annual Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award

Heck Of A Guy Hosts 1st Non-Stealth Announcement Of 1st PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award

Let’s start with what we know: This February [2012], PEN New England will present the first annual award for “Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence.”

According to the PEN New England website,

Bill Flanagan, novelist and music critic, chairs the Award Committee.  Members of the jury include Bono, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Paul Muldoon, Smokey Robinson, Salman Rushdie, and Paul Simon.  PEN New England chairman Richard Hoffman first announced the establishment of the award at last year’s “Lyrics & Literature” program, held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, featuring Flanagan, Muldoon, and Simon.

And thus ends the “what we know” section of the post. These three sentences, found modestly rearranged in a couple of places, seem to have been (until two days ago) the extent of the information publicly available concerning this prize.

Happily the name of the award, “Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence,” while not the sort of phrase that rolls trippingly off the tongue, is self-explanatory and does convey the notion behind the honor.

Further, PEN New England1 is a serious minded institution with a reputation for supporting and encouraging writers of merit. Other awards bestowed by PEN New England include the Henry David Thoreau Prize, the Howard Zinn Award, and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

Bill Flanagan, Paul Muldoon, and Paul Simon

And, the panel of judges (listed above) comprises an impressive group of musicians and writers.

Taken altogether, it seems safe to infer from this background data that the  Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award is a significant prize sponsored by an important organization.

Which brings us to the weird part, to wit …

The Oddly Incidental Mode Of  Announcing The Winners Of The Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award

As far as I can determine – and I will no doubt hear if I’m mistaken – one piece of information about the Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence award that appears to have been absent  from the internet – until two days ago – is the identity of the winner(s) of this award.

In the Heck Of A Guy post of 15 January 2012, (and in the posts of several other blogs that day) however, one finds this brief statement:

In February, PEN New England will honor Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry with its first annual award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence. Conferring that award were judges Salman Rushdie, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Paul Muldoon,2 Smokey Robinson, and Bono. [emphasis mine]

The source of this information is a press release, “New Leonard Cohen Song to Be Streamed by The New Yorker,” which Heck Of A Guy (and several other Cohen-affiliated sites) received from AJGpr, a Los Angeles based public relations firm working with the Old Ideas album marketing campaign.

Now, given that the winners of the Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, which appears to be a prestigious award, had apparently not been officially revealed, one would assume that the announcement would be made not in an incidental sentence or two buried in a press release which threw in the information as a tangential factoid indicative of Cohen’s prowess as a songwriter but  in a headline, the words set in bold type in a large font size font followed by a story devoted to the award – which is what Heck Of A Guy has done in this post, thus meeting the “non-stealth” criterion.

It seems likely, in fact, that this revelation made at this time was an accident – and, it turns out, one more benefit of reading a Cohencentric blog written by an easily distracted sort of guy who happens to  knows that in this context PEN  is neither the name of a writing implement or an abbreviation for penitentiary.

Readers may wish to take advantage of this opportunity before everyone else finds out to be among the first to congratulate Leonard and Chuck.

Bonus: Paul Simon, Bill Flanagan, & Paul Muldoon Discuss Literary Merits Of Pop Music

The PEN New England website offers a video in which Richard Hoffman first announces the establishment of the Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award at the 2011 year’s “Lyrics & Literature” program. Also featured is an interesting discussion by music critic and novelist Bill Flanagan, poet and lyricist Paul Muldoon, and singer, songwriter and musician Paul Simon.  Click here to watch video

I also tracked down a  transcript (in PDF format) of that discussion: Lyrics As Literature

From the blurb for the video:

Some highlights of this forum are Paul Simon singing to our audience with new as-yet unreleased songs at 0:44:00 “Love and Hard Times” and “Questions for the Angels” at 1:16:20.

At 1:27:00, Paul Muldoon reads the lyrics to “My Ride’s Here” which he co-wrote with Warren Zevon. (Lyrics below)

Finally at 1:41:00, Paul sings a song from the 1970s, “Peace Like a River.”


My Ride’s Here
by Warren Zevon and Paul Muldoon

I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train
The sky was full of carrion
“I’ll take the mazuma”
Said Jesus to Marion
“That’s the 3:10 to Yuma
My ride’s here…”

The Houston sky was changeless
We galloped through bluebonnets
I was wrestling with an angel
You were working on a sonnet
You said, “I believe the seraphim
Will gather up my pinto
And carry us away, Jim
Across the San Jacinto
My ride’s here…”

Shelley and Keats were out in the street
And even Lord Byron was leaving for Greece
While back at the Hilton, last but not least
Milton was holding his sides
Saying, “You bravos had better be
ready to fight
Or we’ll never get out of East Texas tonight
The trail is long and the river is wide
And my ride’s here”

I was staying at the Westin
I was playing to a draw
When in walked Charlton Heston
With the Tablets of the Law
He said, “It’s still the Greatest Story”
I said, “Man, I’d like to stay
But I’m bound for glory
I’m on my way
My ride’s here…”

  1. PEN is an acronym for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists. Wikipedia explains: PEN New England is one of three branches of PEN American Center. PEN American Center (PEN), founded in 1922 and based in New York City, works to advance literature, to defend free expression, and to foster international literary fellowship. The Center has a membership of 3,300 writers, editors, and translators. PEN American Center is the largest of the 144 centers that belong to International PEN, the worldwide association of writers that defends those who are harassed, imprisoned and killed for their views.  PEN American Center is one of two PEN centers located in the USA, the other is PEN Center USA in Los Angeles, it covers the USA west of the Mississippi. Full membership in PEN generally requires the publication of two or more books of a literary character or one book that has won a major prize. Editors with a career of five years or more are also eligible, as are many publishers, agents, and other members of the literary profession. []
  2. Interestingly, Paul Muldoon, the New Yorker poetry editor described in the press release as one who has been listening to Cohen since 1967 and quoted  as pronouncing himself “thrilled” that the periodical is presenting Cohen’s work, is also one of the judges for the PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award. []

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