Along with much of the rest of the world, I woke up Thursday morning to the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” While I’m not sure if Dylan would have been my first choice for the award, I nevertheless agree with his fans that he is a great songwriter, one who even deserves to be called a poet.
But is that really true? Can song lyrics actually be considered poems or are they something else entirely?
I suppose it all depends on how you define the word “poem.” I’m afraid mine is not a very learned definition, but as far as I know, a poem is a piece of writing that is meant to speak directly to the imagination through the use of metaphor, imagery, simile, sound effects, and similar devices. Where fiction depends on narrative for its power and nonfiction on hard facts and logical arguments, poetry relies on the words themselves—their meanings, sounds, and rhythms—to make an impression on the reader’s mind.
Taking that view of it, I think some song lyrics can be considered poetry. As long as there’s that direct appeal to imagination, helped out by purposeful word choices, I see no reason why a song can’t be recognized as literary art.
Now, some have argued that Dylan’s lyrics aren’t really poetry because they lose some of their power when his music and his voice are subtracted. But does that mean that they’re not poetry, or just that they’re not the best poetry in the world? Whether the music is there or not, you’re still left with the imagery, the wordplay, the metaphors, and the rhymes, even if these find their fullest expression when set to music. Granted, reading Dylan’s lyrics is a completely different experience from listening to him sing them. But then again, as the author of this piece points out, reading a play is a completely different experience from seeing the same play acted out on a stage, yet no one questions drama’s place in the literary world.
For the record, I’m not saying that Dylan specifically deserves the Nobel Prize. I don’t think I know his work well enough to judge whether it reaches that level of skill. My point is merely that, if approached correctly, the lyrics even to pop songs can take on a literary dimension and be enjoyed both as poetry and as music.
Really, the whole point of writing this post was so I could start a conversation. Do you think songwriters are poets? Do you think Dylan deserved the Nobel? Are you so unhip that when I said “Dylan,” you thought of Dylan Thomas? Let me know in the comments.