Are song lyrics poetry? It depends. Are song lyrics literature? This is the better question than whether they’re poetry. Norman Mailer, who never won a Nobel prize, once said in his usual uncharitable way, “If Dylan’s a poet,” he wrote years ago, “then I am a basketball player.”
Dylan is part of a poetic tradition that exists and has always existed beyond what we have called the only kind of poetry for only the last four-hundred years or so. It’s a tradition that goes back to Homer and forward to Bob Dylan. The Swedish Academy, which selects the Nobel prizewinner for literature each year, has now decided that songwriting can be a full-on literary enterprise, and as a result, the rules of the game have suddenly changed. The parade of mostly unknown writers—with names few of us remember—that have received the Nobel Prizes in Literature in recent years may just have ended. The Academy now recognizes that literature is more than just words on paper or text you can read on a Kindle or an iPad.
Is Bob Dylan a poet? Does it matter? This has abruptly become a more serious question since he became our new Nobel laureate. English teachers and university professors like Christopher Ricks and Andrew Motion have been answering this question by saying yes for years, even if his books are not nearly as important as his performances (or covers by others) on recordings or on the concert stage.
Richard Goldstein, one of the first popular rock critics, wrote a book called The Poetry of Rock over 40 years ago. In it he said Dylan and a number of other young songwriters (at the time) were bringing poetry to the masses. But it was published only in paperback, so it wasn’t considered serious by academic poetry critics of the time. Besides, his background was in writing about pop music, not literature, so they didn’t bother to consider his opinion. As a writer for The Village Voice, he had no standing with them to make his argument.
A more convincing case might be made for Leonard Cohen, who had published many books of poems and a pair of novels before he heard Dylan and thought that he might be able to make a better living by setting his poems to music and recording them. He liked folk, rock and country music as much as he did the poets that influenced him, including Federico Garcia Lorca, William Butler Yeats, and Lord Byron.
“Suzanne,” perhaps his most well-known song before “Hallelujah,” was originally published as a poem. Many of his later songs were published first as poems in The New Yorker before being released on record albums or CDs. Cohen was right to make the switch. He still wrote poems but he brought them to a much wider audience by adding melody and rhythm. Millions of people now knew his work. Through the young audiences that heard poetry in some of the song lyrics they memorized, the oral tradition of poetry was renewed and re-imagined. In the few years before he recorded his first LP, he gave poetry readings to crowds where no more than a few dozen college kids and professors would come to hear him recite his work. He was so good at it that he was almost becoming the “rock star” he would be later. The CBC made a documentary about a poetry tour that took him across Canada where he drew small but enthusiastic crowds. By the time he began his career as a singer-songwriter in his 30s he was told by the record company A&R men that he was too old for rock and roll.
Paul Simon has certainly read a lot of poetry and been influenced by many accomplished poets but not many people would have called him a poet until new fans began recognizing that words could matter in rock songs and newly written “folk songs.” Bob Dylan early on said he was a “song and dance man” and resisted being called a poet much of the time. But he was one of the very first musicians to make serious lyrics rock.
What about the men (and at least one woman, Dorothy Fields) who wrote the songs we have come to call “The Great American Songbook”? Some of them were very good writers but they were not really poets. Even Cole Porter, Larry Hart, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and dozens of other lyricists who were masters of wordplay were the exceptions. But it was the music first and words at best played a secondary role. In more recent times, Mose Allison and Neil Young, among others, wrote good songs but they were never really meant to be considered as having the depth of poems.
Irving Berlin was a supremely talented songwriter but we would not have called his lyrics poetry. The words were clever but not transformative. His influence on the Great American Songbook is inarguable but Dylan created his own American songbook by looking back to the folk tradition and looking ahead to the future at the same time. He more or less invented folk rock, then country rock, and eventually Americana; he didn’t look back to see if someone was gaining on him. He may have written “hits” but only on his terms. It wasn’t his only purpose.
If he wrote “poetry,” it was the poetry of the jukebox – and his canvas was as broad as Walt Whitman’s or T.S. Eliot’s in “The Wasteland.” Unlike the topical songwriters who were his contemporaries, he didn’t write agitprop. His songs were far more inclusive and intended to last beyond the ceiling the protest singers bumped their heads against. When he came to understand the limitations of the topical song and the old ballads and blues that were his source and his bridge to what came to be called folk rock, he began writing more like Rimbaud than Woody Guthrie or his friend and main competitor for a time, Phil Ochs. He may have consumed some drugs along the way but they never consumed him. When he became bored with any style, he moved on to knock down a wall and everyone followed him through the opening he created. He had more periods than Picasso.
While his only real peer, Leonard Cohen, wrote lyrics that also can be called song-poetry, Dylan’s songs could also appropriate and transform surrealist poetry or Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous word storms into something both different and not-so-different at the same time. While Allen Ginsberg praised William Carlos Williams for his use of the American vernacular in contrast to the stuffy academic language poets of the early 20th Century fell into, he recognized that Dylan had brought Whitman’s uniquely American voice to the airwaves, an option Whitman never had. Whitman had had to be content with newspapers and books as his medium.
Dylan threw away the straightjacket and gave voice to big ideas (or humorous ones) in a very public way. It’s hard to imagine Dylan giving a poetry reading in a tenth-floor faculty lounge in an academic tower. He belongs in Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song, along with Hank Williams and maybe Charlie Mingus who made the cut without often needing words to knock down walls.
If Woody Guthrie was Dylan’s model, Cohen’s was Federico Garcia Lorca. Cohen made his entrance from the more sophisticated realm of poetry rather than the less complicated world of folk music. Leonard saw very quickly that Dylan had made it possible to put poetry on the jukebox and his own youthful interest in folk and rock music was rekindled when he saw the new possibilities that Dylan had opened up. By creating lyrics with a broader range and more exciting language than anything that had come out of Tin Pan Alley, both Dylan and Cohen helped change the face of folk and popular music, not only in North America, but around the world. Some fans and critics accused Dylan of treason, of “selling out” when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Canadian literary critics did much the same when in 1967 Cohen, already a poet of some reputation, had the chutzpah to write and record songs that attracted a wide audience.
Marc Caplan, writing in The Forward, seems to understand this as well as any of us:
“It was not two days ago that I was making a point in a private e-mail in which I reached for this example from the pen of the newest Nobel Laureate for Literature: ‘Time and love has branded me with its claws/Had to go to Florida/Dodging them Georgia laws/Poor Boy in a hotel called The Palace of Gloom/Calls down to room service/Says send up a room.’ That first line of Bob Dylan’s “Po’ Boy” comes from Charles Baudelaire, specifically a New Directions translation of his prose poetry, Paris Spleen. The second line is a paraphrase from Blind Willie McTell, a Georgia bluesman whom Dylan sang about in a 1983 outtake. The final line is a Groucho Marx joke, from “A Night at the Opera. The genius of Bob Dylan resides somewhere among French Symbolism, country blues, and Marx Brothers’ shtick, but the revelation occurs in the third line, maybe the only one not copped from a previous source; there Dylan makes clear that what Baudelaire and Blind Willie McTell, Spleen and Blues, share is melancholy, the Palace of Gloom, where Dylan himself has been a semi-permanent resident for the past half-century or more.”
Dylan was awarded his Nobel "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” It was a recognition of how American music is a singular form of literary art. The always gracious and gentlemanly Leonard Cohen, one of Dylan’s few true peers, said upon the Swedish Academy’s announcement: “To me [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”
The Academy also told us “the music, the social commentary, the public performance all mattered. He’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way, not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”
“Occasionally, highbrow kicks its shoes off, lets its hair down, reaches below and pulls up lowbrow,” said the most perceptive critics. As Dylan wrote in one of his best songs from “Nashville Skyline: “Kick your shoes off, do not fear/Bring that bottle over here/I’ll be your baby tonight.