Last week Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first musician to win the award. In choosing a popular musician for the literary world’s highest honor, the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.
Gordon Ball, a longtime advocate for Nobel laureate Dylan, nominated the singer-songwriter for the award 15 years in a row beginning in 1996. Ball also and penned the essay “A Nobel for Dylan?” which was included in our 2011 volume, The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.
Below, Charlotte Pence, editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics reflects on Dylan’s achievement and argues that songwriters deserve to be included in literature classes
I have to admit I was surprised that Dylan was awarded the Nobel, even though that is something that I’ve wished would happen for years. Much of the inspiration for the anthology that I put together, The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, began as conversations with other poets about whether or not Dylan should receive a prize in literature.
As a poet and professor, I’m of the mind that songwriters deserve to be included in literature classes—not because songs and poems are the same genre—but because songs are literature. Their words shape and move us, and we are all better served with broader definitions of who or what is studied. When I first began proposing this anthology in 2006, publishers turned it down because they felt that such a stance would be too difficult to market. But in ten short years, the anthology is out along with a number of other excellent books on the subject such as The Anthology of Rap. And now, the Prize has been awarded to Dylan.
Gordon Ball, an authority on Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation, has advocated for Dylan winning this award since 1996. In his essay, “A Nobel for Dylan?” Ball reminds us that in 1900, Nobel statutes defined literature as “not only belles-lettres” but any writing that possesses literary value. Ball writes, “The art of poetry is thousands of years old; it began in performance and has survived in good part on oral strengths, less through the rather recent convenience of moveable type. In our era Bob Dylan has helped return poetry to its primordial transmission by human breath; he’s revived traditions of bard, minstrel, troubadour.” Not only has his writing reminded us of the relationship with poetry, but also with poetry’s relationship with advocacy. Another criteria of the Nobel Prize, which supported Churchill’s receiving the Prize in 1953 partly for his oratory skills, is that the writer’s work contribute to humanity, and we cannot overlook Dylan’s work as a civil rights advocate.
As I am thinking about Dylan and the award today, I happen to be in the Lake District in England. This semester, I have the privilege of being a visiting faculty member at Harlaxton College, so I took a few poetry students on a pilgrimage from William Wordsworth’s early home, Dove Cottage, where he wrote “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” (affectionately referred to as “the daffodil poem”), to Rydal Mount, where he lived from 1813 until his death. We ended at his grave. As we walked the four miles, we walked through contrasts: hills and valleys; sun and rain; lightness and darkness. A strand of sun would manage to cut through the clouds and color one mountainside gold, leaving the other side gun-grey. I couldn’t help but think of Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, and her contributions to literature. Simply put, she does not receive enough credit as a writer. She journaled about their lives, chronicling the minute changes of mosses to what Wordsworth was writing. In fact, her journal entry, dated April 15th, 1802, described the daffodils that inspired Wordsworth’s poem:
“We saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness &the rest tossed & reeled & danced….”
Her journals, many now argue, are literature. Granted, they are not personal essays just as Dylan’s songs are not poems. Yet our world is changed the better for the words found there, despite how one wants to define what genre those words belong to.