Among rock fans there’s a saying that you’re either a Beatles person or a Stones person, and although this dichotomy is flawed, it accurately sums up the two types of people who listen to rock music, sort-of-hippie and sort-of-punk. I have always lived my life tap-dancing along the hairline of punk. However, this rock identity put me in an interesting position when it came to the issue of Bob Dylan, the punks tended to dislike him and the hippies tended to idolize him. I related to him. We’re both poets with rough tenor voices and a desire to speak to the world, he sang with a “voice that came from you and me,” “in a coat he borrowed from James Dean,” and I too was always more “rebel with a cause” than “Rebel Without A Cause.” So upon hearing that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for literature I saw it as a victory for poets as a whole. We had always been told that we could reach the public as musicians, or have posthumous literary influence as poets, provided that we were okay with dying first. Dylan was the walking, singing, living, paradox we all aspired to be, someone who was the voice of his generation as a musician, and regarded as important to literature as a poet, for the same body of work, because of course when you strip the melody from a song what do you have left but a poem?
When I first heard people say that Dylan shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize, because he had never created literature, I was understandably confused. My first exposure to Bob Dylan’s work was a published book of his lyrics, and a copy of Tarantula sitting on my mother’s poetry shelf, just after Emily Dickinson and before T.S. Elliot. Bob Dylan was the epitome of a musician who was more a poet than a singer, how could people say his poetry was not literature?
Upon investigating the argument against Dylan’s lyrics as literature, 4 main points arise:
1. Dylan's work is written with an “everyman” colloquialism filled vernacular, and because it isn’t verbose holds no literary merit. Diction is not a test of what is and is not literature though, plenty of poets have written for the common man. Shakespeare was known for writing to the common people, and even making up words. The most defining characteristic of Langston Hughes’s work was his dialect inflected diction that read how it would be said. e.e. cummings has long been considered an influential poet, and not for his propensity to sling around 4 syllable words. Writing as the people speak, writing with the people’s voice, has long been considered a valuable poetic skill to be lauded not rejected.
2. Dylan's work is better performed aloud than read on the page, because it is music, therefore it is not literature. Every stage play was written to be performed and is better read aloud than read on paper, should the entire body of Shakespeare’s work be thrown out of the literary canon because it sounds better on stage? Following that we would then have to throw out every other piece of written or spoken word from the close confines of literature. Everything is better read aloud, inflection and emotion can only exist when the words are pulled off the page. I could read you The Raven in such a way that the hair on the back of your neck would stand on end, but after hearing that I doubt you would declare Poe unfit to be called a poet. What's so different about music? If the lyrics on a page are worthy of admiration then the work is worthy of award.
3. Awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize excessively broadens the category of literature to include things that are not literature. Essentially, this just doesn't hold up. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature for his poetry. Poetry is literature. Creating strawman arguments about how Dylan's Nobel prize opens a door to more absurd things winning Nobel prizes for things there is no category for only demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of poetry and exactly how ridiculous the argument against Dylan is.
4. I don't like Bob Dylan's music. Okay. Good for you. I would by no means call myself a fan of Bob Dylan. I can appreciate his music, and I appreciate his poetry, but the flavor of his music is not my particular taste. Here is where the necessary divide of winning a prize for literature comes in to play. Why don't you like his music? The chord structure? His voice? The tempo, the tone quality, the sound, the feeling of his particular performance? None of these things were what earned Dylan the title of Nobel laureate, they're what's earned him 37 Grammy nominations and 10 awards. Before getting upset that a musician you don't like was honored as a poet look at his words on plain paper and reconsider.
Whether you think Bob Dylan was deserving of a Nobel prize for his work or not, there is no doubt that his work is literature. If you're still arguing that it doesn't meet the necessary criteria, it's time to face the music, or rather, the poetry.