Remember Jim Morrison? At this time, more than ever, he comes to mind. As the media explodes with opinions on whether lyrics qualify as poetry and songwriters can be poets, my mind goes back to the era when I first encountered a certain young musician called Bob Dylan. And his peers.
In the mid-1970s as a callow teenager on the inter-college festival circuit singing “folk songs” a la Joan Baez, I had a rich choice of singer-songwriters whose lyrics resounded in the imagination. From traditional ballads with lines like “to the Queen of Hearts he’s the Ace of Sorrow” or gospel, spirituals and blues filled with powerful allegory, to Jim Morrison’s incandescent, hypnotic words with their startling juxtapositions of images, from Paul Simon’s wry humour and light touch (tell me The Boxer or The Sound of Silence aren’t poetic), to Leonard Cohen’s spare, haunting beauty, from the subtle layers of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to the psychedelic colours of Pink Floyd – and my peers can add many more to this list – poetry and contemporary music were closely intertwined.
This was a generation in full spate against so much that characterised the status quo – racism, patriarchy, warmongering, social inequality, hypocrisy, corruption. And the artists of the time, the musicians as much as the writers, filmmakers and visual artists, were at the forefront of this rebellion. Thinking, questioning, challenging, defying – and revisiting traditional sources, epic, scriptural, mythic, to give form to their thoughts. This was certainly true of the music scene. But in all the outpouring of strong, meaningful songwriting, one name stood out. Way out.
Yes, of course I mean Bob Dylan. More than any other, more even than the legendary Jim Morrison, his vast oeuvre is a storehouse of unforgettable lines, memorable rhymes, searing, poignant images. Visit any of his songs at random and you’ll find a way with words that ranges from dry understatement to steely indictment and sharp satire to swirling, dense, apocalyptic imagery. You will find humour and rage and despair and moments of intense tenderness.
Forget about how these songs sound when sung by him or anyone else. Even reading them on the page works. Consider these lines from Mr Tambourine Man:
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow...
A songwriter is certainly a poet...
I rest my case. Dylan is as much a poet as he is a “song and dance man” (his words, not mine). He even lays claim to a lineage of traditional lyrical expression. In a rare public speech in 2015 while accepting the Grammys he said, “These songs didn't come out of thin air. I didn't just make them up out of whole cloth...there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock & roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music. I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them ... and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.” He went on to give actual examples of how particular lyrics by him grew out of this common heritage of folk material.
Many cultures around the world have traditions of poetry set to music, sung, performed, recited; ours in particular. Our borders of literature are broad enough to include a whole spectrum of genres. From shairi and the intensely emotional poetry of the ghazal to bhakti poetry and our most beloved Hindi film songs, we have been fed on a diet of words fused with rhythm and melody. We certainly do not need the Nobel to validate lyrics as poetry. So there is no argument in my mind that a songwriter can be considered a poet. The powers that bestow the Nobel may need to justify this by recalling Homer and Sappho; we don’t.
...But the Nobel Prize?
And yet. And yet, when I heard of the Nobel Prize for Literature going to Bob Dylan, my instinctive response was not uninflected approval. On the whole I felt that he certainly did not need the validation of a Nobel, having more than proved his worth over decades of excellent musicianship.
I had questions.
Had this enigmatic, uncommunicative public figure who refused to reveal what he really thought or felt, having decided decades ago that he was bound to be misunderstood anyway, ever indicated that he considered himself a “writer” (and thereby open to being considered for a writers’ prize) as opposed to a music-maker (and thereby open to being considered for music awards, of which he has many)?
It seems to me that the commitment to being a serious writer should be an important prerequisite to being considered for the Nobel Prize for literature. Would Dylan, if he wanted to be seen as a literary figure, have done things differently? Worked more on his lines, perhaps? Trimmed excess? Explored new forms?
There is a difference between university courses, critics and fans recognising his lyrics as great poetry, and Dylan choosing to position himself as a writer, pursuing writerly concerns. Something smells a little like co-option here. And I’d love to know what Dylan himself thinks about it.
Which we don’t know yet, of course. I wonder if we ever will. Till then...Respect.
Anjum Katyal is a writer, editor and translator who also sings the Blues.