Songs as poetry

The Nobel Prize for Literature is a big deal. It isn’t just any hack or writer who will be awarded the esteemed honor. And that is the way it should be. The prize should honor distinction and exceptional writing. So it makes sense that the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is no ordinary troubadour. As one BBC writer put it, “Eminem and Tupac were never going to be the first songwriters to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

I am sure, however, that generations of pundits will be arguing over the decision to award the prize to Bob Dylan. Poets, teachers and literary critics have argued for years that poetry and song lyrics are two completely different genres. Simon Armitage, one of Britain’s most popular poets wrote, in 2008 that songwriters are not poets:

"Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you're left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors."

I think that the judgment is inaccurate. For many generations, great poetry has been set to music. The oratorio to Handel’s masterpiece, Messiah, didn’t start out as lyrics to a song, but rather Biblical literature around which Handel wrote music. It was great literature before the song surrounded it.

The debate, however, will continue, with some literary high brows claiming that it was a mistake to consider song lyrics as literature. Some will say that the intention of poetry is different from the intention of a song, but that is a subtle distinction that doesn’t hold up after the passage of time.

I, for one, am thrilled that the Nobel committee has chosen Dylan as the recipient of the award. His lyrics reflect dozens of different moods, sometime witty, sometimes warm, sometimes coldly cynical, sometimes nostalgic. His songs are, in my opinion, highly literary. He can be subtle and funny and clever and profound. He can make you laugh and he can make you cry. It is exactly what we want from literature.

And there is more. I believe that the quality of Dylan’s work that prompted the prize is the simple fact that he is a consummate storyteller. “Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is much more than just a pop song. Like other Dylan songs, it is long - stretching to nearly nine minutes. And it traces the events leading to the death of Big Jim, a diamond mine owner who is married to the long-suffering Rosemary and having an affair with Lily, a dancer. Lily, in turn is smitten by her former lover, the Jack of Hearts, who is a clever and charming bank-robber. OK my summary doesn’t even begin to tell the story. But a story is told by the song and while some might consider the song to be rather long, it is much shorter than a novel or a television show or a movie. Dylan succeeds in a very poetic fashion to be compact with his language and to pack intense meaning into very few words.

It may not be your style of poetry, but it is pure poetry nonetheless.

Dylan, of course, doesn’t need me to defend his prize. His life and his songs are the lasting testament to his contribution to the world of literature.

When speaking of song lyrics as poetry, I have heard countless times that Dylan described Smokey Robinson as “America’s greatest living poet.” The problem with that 1965 quote is that it appears that the fact checkers have traced it back to a Motown records press officer instead of having originated with Bob Dylan.

Of course even his name is a bit of a literary tale. Bob Dylan was named Robert Zimmerman when he was born. The stage name he took is from a literary giant, the poet Dylan Thomas. The Welsh poet and writer is author of “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and “And death shall have no dominion,” two poems that will last for generations. I suppose that there are some who believe that Dylan Thomas chose the stage name from the erratic behavior and sometimes drunken appearances by the Welsh poet, but I suspect that more likely there was a genuine appreciation for the poetry that sparked the choice of name.

I suspect that the debate over song lyrics as poetry will continue for many generations. And I am sure that future Nobel committees will award plenty of awards to writers of more traditional forms of literature: novels, nonfiction, and classical poetry.

I can be a bit highbrow when it comes to poetry. I am an online subscriber to Poetry Magazine and I read poetry from books every morning. I know, however, that over the years far more poetry has slipped into my life through the medium of music. I frequently find myself quoting song lyrics and my family will tell you that I often respond to events of everyday life by singing a few bars from some musical or pop tune. Music has a way of getting into our minds and our souls in a way that makes it easy to retrieve in different moments. It is accessible. The ancients knew this. That is why so many great words have been set to music. The music aids in memorization. Try to get a young child to recite the alphabet without singing and you’ll see what I mean.

Making a distinction between poetry and song lyrics simply doesn’t make sense. Music and words are so intertwined that they are permanently connected in our lives.

My delight in Bob Dylan’s award is probably a statement about my age - and the age I was when I first discovered his music. There is something about teenage years that allows music to make a deep impression. When people ask for “good old hymns,” they usually mean the songs they sang when they were teens and young adults. At any rate, my congratulations go out to Bob Dylan.

Now, if I can only get people to admit that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” ranks as a national anthem.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!