When the Nobel Committee announced on Thursday that Bob Dylan would receive the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, he became the first songwriter to ever win the prize. This interesting trivia may inadvertently suggest that there were other songwriters in the running. Of course there weren’t.
It has long been commonplace to say that Bob Dylan’s songs stand on their own as poetry, and the Nobel Prize will only solidify this observation. It might even be true. I could pick a dozen of his songs, at least. You’ll find “Desolation Row” in the Oxford Book of American Poetry alongside Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. But the old argument remains: are song lyrics poetry? The answer always seems to be yes and no. Yes, in the obvious sense that they are words written in verse, with some attention to meter and rhyme. No, in the sense that unlike Dickinson and Frost you need something extra in order to get their full intended effect. Song lyrics are written with some external elements in mind that are not captured by silently reading text from a page.
Does this matter? A Nobel Committee spokesperson, when asked about awarding the prize to a songwriter, referred to the traditions of Homer and Sappho, whose poetic compositions would have been spoken aloud, possibly accompanied by a lyre. We still read those, she says, and they’re rewarding despite the loss of the original performances. She also encouraged us to read Dylan’s lyrics, collected over the years in songbooks. It’s a good point, but not wholly relevant because we don’t have to read Dylan’s lyrics. He’s not a mysterious ancient voice with whom the text is our only contact. We have the records. Why do we even need to argue about whether the text of “Blowin’ In the Wind” or “Tangled Up In Blue” holds up as poetry when, as songs, they are every bit as moving as “The Raven” is as a poem, or The Sound and the Fury as a novel. The only reason anyone questions whether performance can be literature is because recording technology has only been widely available for 90 years or so. Any song or performance from before then came down to us as pure, written words.
The obvious analogy here is theatre: plays in writing are merely scripts and stage directions. Nobody would suggest that the written form was the ideal way to experience a play. For that you need players, sets, costumes, directors—you need a performance. The experience will differ greatly from one production to another, even from one performance to another. Shakespeare himself seems to have never bothered copying out his plays in any authoritative way; he had crib sheets, and modified the plays to suit the occasion. And still, playwrights win Nobel Prizes. I wonder if Churchill would have still received the prize in 1953 if his speeches had merely been published as pamphlets instead of recited and broadcast.
If the choice of Dylan for Nobel is a populist one, and a controversial one among the literati, then all the better. Because in the end, the Nobel is a prize like any other—prestigious, but stuffy and often of dubious standards. Such prizes survive best by being bold and provocative, and by being talked about. The choice of Bob Dylan works that angle perfectly. And if the Nobel Prize for Literature is to continue to be relevant, then showing that it’s not afraid to honour writers working outside strict, serious, silent-reading traditions is a good start. We are nearly two decades into this century of spoken-word poetry slams, art gallery hip hop, and serial podcasts. If the Nobel Committee wanted to signal the living nature of poetry, it could do far worse than to select the greatest songwriter alive. As they themselves noted, it was Dylan who recast the popular song as a literary vehicle in the first place. Even though he’s a singer and musician, his towering influence on pop culture is a textual one. He did not, like Elvis, bring African-American blues and gospel to the white masses for the first time. He was not, like The Beatles, a master of pop hooks or an innovator in studio experimentation. Musically, he has rarely been adventurous. The lyrics are what his unrivalled reputation is all about, and he changed the way we look at (and listen to) songs. You may be surprised that the Nobel Prize went to a songwriter, but nobody should be surprised to hear that the songwriter was Bob Dylan.
Here are some of my favourite lines from the only Nobel laureate in my record collection:
I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
“Shelter from the Storm” 1975
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
“Blind Willie McTell” 1983
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singing.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” 1963
But were talking about music: there’s nothing like hearing the man himself.
-Sean “Blind Boy Grunt” McB