There was outrage among much of the literary elite last week after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prize going to a songwriter, even one as influential as Dylan, raises the question as to whether lyrics can be classed as poetry.
I think we’ve all experienced that feeling when a particular line of a particular song stands out and stays with you. Many times it seems the perfect lyric is just as good, if not better, than many acclaimed lines of poetry.Yet there is a clear class divide in the arts, with poetry seen as high art and lyrics seen as simplistic and easy to write. This divide is ironic seeing as poetry has been performed with music for thousands of years—the word lyric originating in Ancient Greece where a poet would perform whilst playing a lyre (an older version of a harp). Surely then, song lyrics are just a continuation of the oral tradition of poetry that is already celebrated by academics.
Critics often say that if you put lyrics on a page they won’t hold up to scrutiny the same way a poem would. The lyrics of your favourite song, when written down, probably look a lot less impressive than you thought they would. This is because in music we are presented with a lot more information, the rhythms, melodies and vocal effects aren’t present on the page. Therefore, a lot of lyrics lose their charm on paper—think of it as the difference between seeing a 3D object in real life or in a photo.
However, there are many lyricists—Bob Dylan being one—whose work can stand on it’s own because it has enough ‘literary value’ to be classified as poetry. To me, it seems that lyrics serving the sole purpose of accompanying the music do not work as poetry in their own right. Yet, songs where the lyrics are put to the foreground, and the music works to accompany them, do. The best example of this is in rap music (or “rhythm-assisted poetry”). Rappers like Kendrick Lamar and MF DOOM showcase as much poetic skill in their lyrics as other more acclaimed writers. For example, an album like To Pimp a Butterfly could be seen as one of the more important pieces of literature in recent years because, unlike a lot of avant-garde works, it is accessible to wider audiences whilst still retaining social and political importance.
Overall, I’d say poetry and lyrics work best when they converge; there’s a musicality to poetry and poetry in lyrics. No matter where you stand in terms of Dylan’s music, the controversial decision has been good at least in proving that lyrics are a legitimate form of poetry.