Are Dylan’s songs ‘Literature’?

Bob Dylan has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. The media has reported on this surprising choice by asking musicians, poets and writers whether his songs are literature.

Irvine Welsh, the author of Train-spotting (1993), made it clear on Twitter that he didn’t think they were: “If you’re a ‘music’ fan, look it up in the dictionary. Then ‘literature’. Then compare and contrast.”

So are song lyrics a type of literature or, more specifically, poetry? The English poet, Glyn Maxwell, thinks not. In On Poetry, he writes that. “Songs are strung upon sounds, poems upon silence. Inhabiting silence makes poetry the harder and more important art form. Music makes lyrics seem better than when they appear on the whiteness of the page.”

But many don’t share Maxwell’s position. Critic Christopher Ricks has long championed Dylan’s song lyrics as poetry. In Dylan’s Vision of Sin, he places Dylan’s songs in a poetic tradition that includes Tennyson and Donne.

But Maxwell and Ricks ignore an ancient link between poetry and music. Ancient Greek poetry, such as the epics of Homer or the lyric poems of Sappho, were accompanied by a stringed musical instrument called the lyre. It is from the lyre that we get the words “lyric” and “lyrics”.


Perhaps not surprisingly, the Swedish Academy drew attention to this ancient link between poetry and music when announcing its decision. The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, pointed out that Homer and Sappho were “meant to be performed, often together with [musical] instruments”.

There are more recent examples. English lute songs of the 16th century set poetry to music. In the 19th century, Schubert and other composers wrote lieder, which also set poetry to music.

But how accurate is it to compare Dylan with Sappho and composers of art song? Dylan belongs to the tradition of blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley (the commercial American songwriters of the first half of the 20th century).

He was central in the rise of Americana, a mix of folk and popular American musical forms that have little to do with “elite” musical forms such as opera and lieder.

Dylan has avoided taking on the mantle of “poet”. He once described himself as a “song ’n dance man”. Nevertheless, he famously took the name of a Welsh poet (Dylan Thomas) for his pseudonym. Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman.

In addition, his songs, as Ricks and others have pointed out, take in many literary references, as seen in his many often-playful allusions to the Bible.

And, although his breakthrough in the early 1960s was as a folk singer, Dylan quickly became famous for the complexity and poetic quality of his lyrics.

So, do Dylan’s lyrics survive as poetry in the “silence” of the page? You can find out for yourself by reading the 960 pages of Dylan’s The Lyrics: 1961-2012. And you can compare his work with those of other song writers — such as Lou Reed, PJ Harvey and Paul McCartney — whose lyrics have been published in book form.

Certainly, many people would argue that the lyrics of Dylan’s classic songs from the 1960s do survive as poetry. The strange, surreal, and often funny lyrics from Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) arguably represent his peak as a lyricist. Visions of Johanna, from Blonde on Blonde, is a good example of the literary Dylan.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?

We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it

Lights flicker from the opposite loft

In this room the heat pipes just cough

The country music station plays soft

But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off

Just Louise and her lover so entwined 

And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.

Visions of Johanna contains some of Dylan’s most celebrated lyrics, and you can see why. It clearly works on the page.

But should we make the printed page the standard of what counts as literature?

Dylan’s songs are multimedia things. Lyrics are to songs what scripts are to plays or films. We can read scripts for enjoyment and to better understand the productions they come from. But to pretend that the play or film is somehow secondary is clearly a mistake. Equally, we can’t ignore the music and performances that accompany Dylan’s song lyrics.

Dylan’s Nobel prize shows up what the Swedish Academy has so far ignored in their award system: film, popular music and the emerging forms of digital storytelling. Perhaps what this Nobel tells us more than anything is that literature or poetry are categories of our own making. To move beyond the page seems long overdue.

David McCooey is a professor of writing and literature at Deaking University, Australia. This article first appeared in The Conversation

The Conversation

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Ithala fails to act against board chairperson over PPE scandal

Morar asked to settle with the state and pay back the profit he made on an irregular tender

Vodacom swindled out of more than R24m worth of iPhones

A former employee allegedly ran an intricate scam to steal 8700 phones from the cellular giant

More top stories

Judicial Conduct Committee orders Mogoeng to apologise for his remarks...

The JCC said that by the chief justice straying into politics, he breached the judicial conduct code and ordered him to issue an apology and retraction

Millers pay for duty-free wheat quota

The South African Revenue Services didn’t gazette the EU quota rates for about month, with no reasons given – and then suddenly published them

Austerity budget unpacked

The finance minister has said it’s not an austerity project. But the numbers and economists disagree

Will job creation schemes fix the unemployment crisis?

Experts say there is no evidence yet to show that government-funded employment schemes work long term
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…