Can poems ever be songs?

Our young blogger Charlotte blogs on the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to Bob Dylan in October 2016.

“Oh, that’s... that’s brilliant! Wait... is it brilliant? I’m not sure. I’m going to wait to see what everyone else thinks first, and only then will I form my own opinion.”

This confused melee of emotions was how I reacted when I first saw the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” As I stared at the online article, I could literally map out the different thoughts jostling for the limelight in my mind: I am a Bob Dylan fan, so logically I should be happy about this. But I also care about art and literature, and is Bob Dylan really a writer of the kind of ‘literature’ normally associated with the Nobel Prize? Is he really deserving of the award?

Initially, I was in two minds. Bob Dylan shaped a generation of songwriters and listeners, and arguably transmogrified the entire music business with his defiant, anti-establishment lyrics. Even the most ardent Dylan fan would accept that his music wasn’t really about the music, in technical terms; it was about the words. Whenever I think of Dylan I imagine his music as carefully crafted language set against a background of captivating – though not altogether virtuosic – guitar or band music. But can his words be fairly named ‘poetry’?

I have to admit that to begin with, despite my love for Dylan’s work, my mind settled on ‘no’— at least, not ‘poetry’ enough to justify him winning the Nobel Prize. But then everything changed when I read an article on the BBC News website, written in the aftermath of Bob Dylan’s controversial win, which cited acclaimed British poet Simon Armitage as arguing in 2008 that:

“songwriters are not poets...Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are 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 clichés and mixed metaphors.”

This is admittedly true of a fair number of songs. But why generalise? Recently, I took part in a creative writing course, and one of the mentors there – who happened to be a poet – began ranting about the whole Dylan affair; not ranting about the choice of Dylan as the prize-winner, but about the attitudes of the Nobel Prize traditionalists and the people who sneered at the choice. “They want to make it all about them,” he fumed. “It’s about the artist, not about the prize!”

He was absolutely right. Who has the right to define whether Dylan’s songs are poetry or not, other than the artist himself? According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary, a poem is “a piece of writing in which the words are arranged in separate lines, often ending in rhyme, and are chosen for their sound and for the images and ideas they suggest.” If we take this definition to be true, then Dylan ticks all the boxes: anybody who is a fan of the more elaborate Dylan compositions from the 1960s, such as “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Visions of Johanna,” will agree that they are some of the finest pieces of writing – or dare I say poetry – ever written.

And Dylan is by no means the only expert in his field. Paul Simon wrote many achingly beautiful songs which could easily be read as poetry – his 1966 composition “The Dangling Conversation” is a shining example. John Cooper Clarke, Jim Morrison, Nick Drake... maybe these are just exceptions to the rule, but I have to conclude that yes, Bob Dylan did deserve to win the prize, and it is perhaps unfair to make the sweeping statement that no song can ever be considered as poetry, or that no songwriter can ever be called a poet.

Many songwriters are not poets. But does that really mean that no poet can ever be a songwriter?