Is Bob Dylan a Poet?
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.