A month has passed since Bob Dylan belatedly decided to accept his Nobel Prize. Ever since it was announced that he would be the recipient, the internet has been alive with passionate debate over the issue of whether or not song lyrics should be counted as literature. For Dylan fans, this is not a new discussion: ever since the early sixties, when he first began penning lyrics that captured both the disillusionment and the hopes of a generation, the extent to which his work counts as ‘poetry’ has been the subject of fierce disagreement.
Before we can establish whether song lyrics should be considered poetry, we must establish exactly what we mean by the latter. Wordsworth defined poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings: it takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. According to this definition, song lyrics can certainly be considered poems – but so too can paintings (and in fact all works of art).
A simple web search returns a less eloquent but more practical definition: according to the dictionary, poetry is ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’. Literature is defined as ‘written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit’. Going by these definitions, song lyrics – being ultimately recorded spoken words and not written words – do not stand as poetry.
Leonard Cohen, who is perhaps the only songwriter of the 20th Century whose name can seriously be mentioned in the same breath as Dylan’s, made a clear distinction between songs and poems without giving preference to one or the other. With characteristic eloquence, he pointed out that whereas songs are written only to be performed, and have ‘an amazing thrust’, poems ‘wait on the page’ and ‘move in a much more secret way through the world’.
Cohen’s focus on the differing ‘ways of travel’ that the two art forms exhibit draws our attention to what is surely the crucial point: that if a clear distinction can be made between songs and poems, then an equally clear distinction should be made between songwriters and poets.
Both songs and poems use emotive language to craft powerful images, and both use meter – and often rhyme – to give the language rhythm and musicality, which adds to the emotive effect. And yet the distinction between songs and poems is quite easily recognised, and is intuitively understood by virtually all people.
The difference between the two is most easily brought to mind by considering the different traditions from which they stem. Poetry, like music, has traditionally been seen as a high art form, and is naturally only accessible to the literate portion of the population – which was, until fairly recently, the wealthy few. In contrast, songs have been part of the folk culture of ordinary people. They generally have a relatively colloquial tone and deal with the various characteristics that define the human experience in a way that sounds authentic, almost spontaneous.
Song lyrics are usually written in such a way as to create their desired effect when combined with a certain melody, and performed in a particular way. Generally even the most poetic lyrics lose much of their power when they are simply read from a page. In contrast, poems are written in such a way that the desired effect is inherent in the sounds and rhythms of the words as they are naturally spoken. The difference is well illustrated by comparing these two verses from Leonard Cohen:
Just take this longing from my tongue
All these lonely things my hands have done
Let me see your beauty broken down
Like you would do for one you loved
Whilst it remains deeply poetic and beautiful, this verse from the song Take This Longing nonetheless loses much of its appeal when separated from its musical accompaniment and the melody it is associated with. Like many song lyrics, it sounds unpredictable and cumbersome when read naturally.
I long to hold some lady
For flesh is warm and sweet
Cold skeletons go marching
Each night beside my feet
The regular meter and syllable count and standard grammar make this verse from Cohen’s poem I Long to Hold Some Lady both powerful and easily readable when read naturally from a page. As is the case with many poems, it would be difficult to turn it into a song without causing it to sound unnatural and robotic.
Many of Dylan's lyrics are of immense artistic and cultural value, but they are only of such value within the context of song. When removed from the harsh, nasal vocal delivery, the traditional folk melody and the acoustic guitar accompaniment, the lyrics to Blowing in the Wind do not sound even remotely as wistful or poignant. This is even the case with some of Dylan's most striking poetic imagery: ‘the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face’ is stunning in the context of Visions of Johanna, but it feels somehow empty when read naturally.
Dylan is the undisputed king of songwriting, but he doesn't write poetry and is therefore neither a poet nor a literary figure. He is the product of an entirely different tradition – the tradition of troubadours, and of song. Perhaps it is true that people from this tradition should not be associated with haughty awards like the Nobel Prize for Literature. But then again, they aren't likely to want to be either. Perhaps that was his point when he accepted it with such indifference.
Jean Bakula from New Jersey on July 09, 2017:
Yes, your ending point is a good one too. It seems throughout his career, Dylan always rejected labels. He would get upset when people even called him "the spokesperson for a generation" and hates being called a "prophet" or any title. I think he was happiest when he was singing Woody Guthrie songs!
It's nice to meet another Dylan fan. You also mention rhyme and meter. It's interesting sometimes the way he has to jam a lot of words in a line to make them fit the music, or really drag the few he has out. He's a master at that.
I read somewhere (I think in a biography of another singer), that Dylan adopted that nasal sound on purpose. He sounds so great in Nashville Skyline and when he sings songs like Every Grain of Sand. Plus if you watch any old You Tube videos. it's amazing how much everyone smoked back then!
I wish he went personally to collect the Nobel Prize, I think many of us would like to hear what he would have said. Apparently he couldn't even be counted on to show up at group shows, he isn't very sociable, at least at very public events.
Anyway, a very nice hub, it deserves to be on the niche site. I have one here on Blood on the Tracks, my fave Dylan album. Best Wishes.
Byron Dean (author) from Europe on July 09, 2017:
I too have the Simon and Schuster book, and have spent many hours reading and memorising my favourite lines of poetry within it.
(To address the point about songs needing to be written before they're sung: this is true of all songs. But there are still plenty that don't particularly work without their musical accompaniment).
In Dylan's case, the poetry is beautiful and moving to many people even without the music -- myself included. But it is in the tradition of song that his words are of wider cultural value. As a songwriter, Dylan has no real competitor; as a poet alone, Dylan -- while great -- is not the cultural powerhouse that he is when considered as a songwriter.
I agree that Dylan's word usage is more skilful than that of many 'so-called poets'. I'd rather read Dylan's lyrics than the words of most of the current poet-laureates. I don't consider it to be a criticism of Dylan when I say that he is in the tradition of song and not of literature -- I think it's the tradition he's always strived to be in.
I suppose the primary point of the article is to say that applying arbitrary labels to artists is quite unnecessary, and that it is the art itself -- regardless of what we choose to call it -- that is most important. I think Dylan would agree on this point.
Jean Bakula from New Jersey on July 08, 2017:
I have a very long book, Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001, from Simon and Schuster, and I read many of them as poems, beautiful ones, because songs have to be WRITTEN first. My book was published in 2004, and ends at Time Out of Mind. But how can you read Chimes of Freedom or It's Alright Ma, I'm only Bleeding and not say it's poetry? It is a good question, especially in view of Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature. His word usage is extraordinary, better than many so called poets.
I don't think he was indifferent, he's a known recluse. I never expected him to show up. But I agree, it's a hard thing to define. Some of the folk songs are traditional songs a bard would sing, but if you look at his whole body of work, many of his words work as poetry. Also, the words of some of his very first songs still stand the test of time. Those of many poets do not.
I like what you said about Leonard Cohen, another genius.