The Nobel Prize: is songwriting literature?

Last week the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, and it is Bob Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

This has, unsurprisingly, caused some controversy, with people arguing that Dylan shouldn’t be honoured in this way because, for example, claiming lyrics as literature devalues the written form, because reading literature requires silence, and because Dylan’s ego is big enough as it is. But are these criticisms fair? Can songwriting really be considered a form of literature?


Bob Dylan in Toronto – Wikimedia Commons

To give a little context to this debate, let’s be clear that Dylan isn’t the first lyricist to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1913, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore won the prize. Although he was predominantly known for his poetry, he also wrote numerous “musical dramas, dance dramas […] and songs for which he wrote the music himself”. His work was honoured because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”. It’s also worth noting that Dylan has also had writing published in book form, including volumes of his lyrics, Chronicles (the first part of a 3-volume memoir) and Tarantula (a collection of experimental prose poetry) – although there can be no doubt that he was awarded the Nobel prize primarily for his songwriting.

Perhaps the biggest criticism levied against Dylan’s win is the idea that songs are not poetry, lyrics are not literature. I find this so interesting, because even though people often find it very hard to define exactly what literature is, the same people can be vehemently outspoken about what literature definitely isn’t. This is what has happened with the Dylan debate, and it’s especially fascinating because, in defending literature, many of these people end up seeming to criticise it. For example, one Tweet claimed that “Songwriting is a different form than poetry. BD’s words don’t sit inert on a page,” implying that there is something ‘inert’ about poetry. Another Tweet said that a pro-Dylan fan was “suggesting that songs are mere word-delivery systems,” as if this is, ultimately, what a poem is. All of this seems to equate to a hidden value judgement, that songwriting is not poetry precisely because it is more than poetry – it is poetry plus, it is poetry but better. How can we defend the ‘sacred’ boundaries of literature if we’re going to use terms like ‘mere’ and ‘inert’ to do so?

In an article in The Atlantic, Zach Schonfeld argues that “Dylan’s songs are far more than the content of the lyric booklets that accompany his releases; his artistry is rather seamlessly wedded to his gravelly voice and loooong, streetched-out delivery.” That could be true – after all, Dylan’s popularity has formed around his songs, not his printed books of lyrics, so there probably is something about his lyrics which mean they largely work because they are bound up with his music and his voice. But isn’t a unique ‘voice’ and form of delivery applicable to printed poetry too? Haven’t poets always played with language, making up words to imitate sounds or stretching out words with extra vowels (exactly as Schonfeld did in his example)? What about ee cummings, whose poems are written in lower case and without full stops? How about ‘concrete poetry’, which lays out its lines to form a particular shape? And what on earth can we say about slam poetry and spoken word poetry? Yes, delivery matters, but it is by no means unique to songs.

Performance poet John Cooper Clarke – Wikimedia Commons

It may be true that, written down and read in silence, Dylan’s lyrics don’t have the same impact that they do when they are being sung, but by giving him the Nobel Prize for Literature, are the judges really telling us that this is how we should consume them? Or are they saying that, in the form in which we know them – song – these lyrics can be considered to be not just literature, but important literature? So much of poetry is about rhythm, rhyme and sound that in many ways poems feel closer to songs than they do to, say, novels, yet we never doubt that poems are literature. Indeed, song is how many forms of poetry started out. For example, the ancient Chinese Shijing (translated as both ‘Classic of Poetry’ and ‘Book of Songs’) is a collection of the oldest recorded Chinese poems, many of which were written to be performed with musical accompaniment. In more recent times, the USA’s poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, Robert Pinsky, once said, “Poetry’s proper culmination is to be read aloud by someone’s voice […] because a poem’s medium is one human voice.” Thanks to humanity’s oral history, poetry – nay, literature – seems inextricably connected to a unique voice, and even when we are reading, in silence, words on a page, we are still hearing a voice, whether it is our own, or that of the character, the narrator or the writer themselves.

I don’t know whether Bob Dylan was the most deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize this year. Perhaps his ego is big enough (although why that should be a good reason to withhold a prize, I don’t know), and maybe there are other writers who deserve recognition more. But I think rejecting Dylan on the basis that lyrics are not literature is a bit limiting. Surely it’s about enjoying beautiful and meaningful combinations of words, however we come to hear them?

What do you think about Dylan’s Nobel win? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment down below.

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