I have a confession to make: I do not like, nor have ever liked, listening to Bob Dylan’s music. This is surely heresy as today sees the announcement of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, and it has left me with some mixed feelings. I have among my friends and colleagues on social media many poets and writers and musicians, and the debate out there is passionate, emotional, fierce. Perhaps what surprises me the most is my lack of resistance to this news; while I cannot suddenly purport myself an overnight fan of Dylan’s work, I do err on the side of the poets speaking in his defence. What I am certain about is Dylan’s unequivocal talent as a lyricist, and that writing lyrics is not the same craft as writing poems. Each of these disciplines is distinct and comes with its own complexities and challenges; one is not ‘better’ than the other. If I were a songwriter, I’d be proud to have written:
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” — Tambourine Man
The sonic undulation of sibilance in the second line of this lyric is poetic, as is the clean and unusual imagery (‘diamond’ ‘circus’). Is this a poem? Is this a lyric? Dylan has been awarded the prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’, and to my mind, this extract above supports this position. I would go further and suggest that Dylan also innovated and energised the form of the American song.
This award also brings into debate old divisions between supposed high and low culture for some, and I say, perhaps it is time to get over this class war of culture. For some decades now, those boundaries have been blended, deconstructed, questioned, dismantled–so why are some commentators even calling into question the validity or possibility of the Nobel literature prize going to a songwriter? I say, why not? When I wrote my PhD, on sonority in literature by writers who might have ‘once-upon-a-time’ been called ‘minority’, I included African-American spirituals and Welsh folk songs in my literature review not just as cultural documents, but for their distinct contribution to our literature. It is about time perhaps to review what we call literature and broaden our consideration of all written cultural artefacts–perhaps we will soon see a Nobel Prize for Literature award to a video-game.
Do I still dislike listening to Dylan’s music? Yes–but to deny him a Nobel Prize for literature as a songwriter would be untenable. This prize is not about calling Dylan a poet; it is about acknowledging songwriting as a legitimate form of literature.
(Image Credit: Huffington Post)