What is poetry? It is a formulation of words bound together by literary techniques. It takes shape in many forms: ballads, sonnets, haikus – the list goes on. The bardic tradition of poetry is made up of a professional story teller, verse maker and music composer. In recognition of this, it is important to consider avenues of music that could be classified as poetry.
With a career spanning six decades and over 520 pieces of music, Bob Dylan has created an impressive repertoire to reflect on, with songs including Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, a dynamic piece consisting of ten stanzas – or, a piece that perfectly fits the bardic form of poetry. This year, Dylan was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, credited with ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.
Arguably, awarding Dylan a Nobel Prize for Literature when he is first and foremost a musician sets a precedent for the prize to be opened to all musicians. Yet, this argument is about as valid as claiming the Prize is open to anyone who compiles a fourteen-line stream of nonsensical words and proclaims it to be poetry. Dylan is an exception to the rule; he is a musician whose lyrics are activist poetry, most famously in the context of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the release of his album Freewheelin’, comprising of thirteen songs voicing the oppression of minority groups. Notably, throughout history, poets would often express political events though ballads – music, radicalism and poetry here are so deeply intertwined that it seems utterly inappropriate to insist that they must be separated.
Dr Jane Goldman of our own English Literature department is a staunch defender of music as a form of poetry. Whilst it must be stated that Dr Goldman does not value the Nobel Prize as something to be celebrated after Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize for peace in 1973, she states of Dylan’s winning, “I really do not understand why words written for music should be so scorned as somehow not really poetry, or bad poetry at best. To claim that songs are not poems is to ignore the very lyric foundation of poetry itself.”
I realised my own love for literature very early on when it was presented to me as a more expressive platform than any other subject in a rigid school system. I could voice my own opinions without fear of getting the answer right or wrong; the beauty of literature lies in its subjectivity. One of the first tasks set by my English teacher was to analyse the lyrics of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. At the ripe old age of twelve, it was a pretty complex task trying to understand whatever it was Bowie was trying to portray in his song about Major Tom – but it was an important one. It introduced a group of children to a form of poetry not considered before, and illustrated how poetry seeps into every aspect of our culture.
Putting a melody behind poetry does not make it any less of a poem, and choosing to dismiss Bob Dylan as a poet because of his title as a musician utterly disregards the literary technique behind each and every song.