Are Song Lyrics Poems?

Dylan at a concert in New York state, 1963. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Dylan at a concert in New York state, 1963. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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9 thoughts on “Are Song Lyrics Poems?

  1. I am a reader. I even read book reviews. However, I have not tried nor know how to write a book review. I don’t know if poetry is literature nor if Dylan is worthy of the award. Awards for art and other subjective activities are a funny thing, In this case, I don’t think it matters that much one way or the other.

    I am on the outside here. I have no direct connection to the people who spend their days with literature. That makes my views on the Swedish Academy’s choice on literature (this year and every year) beside the point.

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    1. That’s cool. I was just curious to see what some other bloggers made of this, since (if Twitter and BookTube are any indication) people seem to be really fired up about it, for one reason or another.

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  2. Song lyrics are most definitely poetry. But would these poems have had same societal impact without the music & Dylan’s performance, no I don’t think so. Were there other potential recipients that weren’t old white straight men? Absolutely! Were there potential recipients who write “genre” fiction & so equally overlooked.
    It seems to me that the Nobel committee are patting themselves on the back for being “radical” in their selection. Awarding a old white man is not remotely radical. I’ll celebrate their original thinking & radical award when given to the likes of Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin.

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    1. Yeah, I think there are probably other people who were just as deserving as Dylan or maybe more so. But as for the Nobel committee favoring authors of “literary fiction,” I think an award like this might be a step in the right direction. I’m sure that when Bob Dylan’s lyrics were brand new, the members of the Swedish Academy would have never dreamed of recognizing them as “literature.” But between this and last year’s Literature award, they seem to be broadening their horizons a little bit. Who knows, maybe someday they’ll finally end their embargo on “genre fiction” too. 🙂

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  3. Yes, they can be poetry – good poetry or bad poetry! For me, Dylan’s are good poems – he uses words in an original way and his lyrics over time reflect changes in both the society he operates in and in himself as a man aging. The reason I’m thrilled by this award is that for once the Nobel has come out of its stuffy, elitist, intellectual tower and awarded the prize to someone who is admired by people old and young, black, white and all shaded in-between, male and female, American or not, educated to whatever level – good job, Nobel, I say!! I’d far rather be listening to Dylan this week than reading more Patrick Modiano…

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    1. Plus, it harkens back to the early days of poetry when nearly all poems were written to be performed as songs. People act like songwriters being recognized as poets is a new thing, but in a way, Dylan’s craft is even older than those of the novelists and playwrights who have won the Nobel previously!

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