I thought this was a joke at first, but it’s true. The Swedish Academy that selects Nobel Prizes has had some quirks over its life, but this takes the cake. If you haven’t heard, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—yes, Literature—is none other than Bob Dylan. From NBC News:
Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday.
The 75-year-old music legend was cited by the Swedish Academy for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." He will receive a prize of $927,740.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, Dylan became a prolific songwriter and penned some of the most influential anti-war and civil rights anthems of the 1960s' counterculture. They include "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are a-Changin" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
He has also had an enormous impact on other artists of his generation and beyond, writing songs that would later be covered by music legends ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Adele.
I’m not denying that Bob Dylan has had a large cultural impact, but is song writing literature? When music and lyrics come together to form a vocal piece, it’s the music that defines the work, not the lyrics. The lyrics are a secondary matter. Take opera for example. The author of an opera is the composer, not the librettist. We know Le nozze di Figaro as a Mozart opera. Opera buffs would know that the librettist was Lorenzo Da Ponte, but even here that’s a special case. Da Ponte served as Mozart’s librettist for a few of Mozart’s great operas, so he became famous in the opera world. But Mozart had other great operas without Da Ponte and no one knows who the librettist were for those. How much did Da Ponte contribute in making those operas with Mozart great? Well, no one knows any of the operas Da Ponte wrote for other composers. No one knows the librettists for Giuseppe Verdi’s great operas. Or Rossini’s. Or Pucini’s. Or just about any other opera.
The article goes on to say that Dylan’s songs are poetry:
Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Nobel Academy, told a news conference Thursday there was "great unity" in the panel's decision.
"Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear," she added. "But it's perfectly fine to read his works as poetry."
Now I’m not saying that lyrics are not important to a song. It’s the lyrics that usually construct the melody. Take for instance Dylan’s song, “Rainy Day Women.” Here’s the first verse and chorus from MetroLyrics:
Well, they'll stone you when you're trying to be so good:
They'll stone you just like they said they would
They'll stone you when you're tryna go home
Then they'll stone you when you're there all alone
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned
The verse part of the melody “They’ll sto-o-ne you when you’re try-y-ing to be so goo-ood” is created by (1) the rough meter of the line, (2) the vowel length of the words, and (3) a stretching of three words in the line, “stone,” a word just before the final foot of the line (trying, said, tryna, there), and final word of the line. Then the chorus part of the melody still keeps that three stretched words, but the line is shorter and now he shifts the first stretched word from the second word slot to the first: “But” and “Ev.” Here’s the song if you want to hear it.
The point is the lyrics are important to the song but not in the way they are in poetry. The words are selected not according to verbal innovation but by commonplace. To be stoned for not following the rules is actually cliché. The whole song is a cliché, so that the interest in the song is in the articulation, not the language. Notice also that Dylan occasionally starts a verse with “Well” or the chorus with “Tell you what” and “yes.” Those are what I call verbal ticks that communicate attitude. They would be meaningless in poetry. Notice too the chuckles and tones in his voice as he articulates the song. Those are elements of songwriting and oral communication, not literary poetry. The formulaic repetition of each line simulates a chant. Poetry would be boring with repetition like that, but because of the articulation and melody, it holds musical interest. And I would put to you that the majority of Bob Dylan’s songs contain more interest as a ditty and not as poetry.
Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t Dylan compositions where the lyrics could stand alone as poetry. There are some. Here’s one, “All Along the WatchTower.”
There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth
No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
It still highly “songish,” mostly because the line forms a standard verse form, but there’s a lot of interesting lines and imagery here to make it poetry. Here is a fascinating exegesis of the song:
Yes, it still comes down to the song elements that enrich the song, but here I feel confident to say that the poetic elements are of a high caliber here.
Those two songs represent the extremes, a highly songish composition and a highly poetic composition. How many songs are closer to the poetic side? I find very few. He has a body of work of great songs, but they are songs, not poems. Yes, he’s got some lines in songs that are poetic, but a line or two does not make a poem. For him to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature is a poor understanding of the distinction between song and poetry. The Swedish Academy really botched it.
So what exactly separates music lyrics from poetry? I see at least three things. First, music lyrics rely heavily on formulaic, repetitive structures. Poetry has structure too, but nowhere near the level of structure of music. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that as music has become recordable and mass produced that poetry in opposition has become looser and less form dependent. Second, music lyrics rely on common phrasing, if not clichéd phrases. Music requires the listener to identify with the lyrics in order for the artistic experience to resonate. Commonplace language does that. Clichés are antithetical to poetry. Third, music relies on oral articulation and, most important of all, the musical experience to carry meaning, There are jazz, rock, and classical songs with just a handful of enigmatic words but where the music makes the piece whole, gives it unity, completes the meaning. Those words alone are fragmented nothings, but the music gives it coherence. Music lyrics rely on the music to give it coherence, where poetry can’t rely on anything but the words on the page. The more a song relies on these three elements, the more “songish” I call it, and the less poetic it is. For the most part, I find Dylan’s work to be more songish than poetic.
That is not to say that I dislike Dylan’s songs. I love his songs. He’s got a below average singing voice, he’s a mediocre guitar player, and a poor harmonica player, but his songs are great! How come? Because he’s a great composer. Though not particularly virtuosic, he’s a great song writer.
Might as well give you another, one I really loved as a teen.
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.
Source: <a href="http://www.elyrics.net/read/b/bob-dylan-lyrics/mr.-tambourine-man-lyrics.html">click here</a>
What do others think? Literature or song? Should he have received the Nobel Prize? What are your favorite Bob Dylan songs?