Monday, October 17, 2016

He's a Poet, And He Knows It

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Literature Prize?

Okay, I have a problem with that, because even though I'm a Dylan fan, I have long advocated against the idea of treating song lyrics as poetry, and thus as literature.  Because, as I explained in an essay I wrote back in 2010, song lyrics are not as powerful or as provocative when read off a page as they are when sung.  True, Bob Dylan may have freed songwriting from standard rhymes and boy-girl relationship concerns.  However, even "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Visions of Johanna," as sets of lyrics, don't, when read, have the same power and depth as poems like Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" or Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd" or poems from British literature such as Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud" or Milton's "Can You Lend Us Two Bob 'Til Tuesday?" ;-)  Yes, his lyrics have been published in book form, but the lyric books were mainly to learn the words when you couldn't make them out on the records.  And I don't think Dylan got the prize for "Tarantula." :-D
But then again, Dylan still had to write the words down on paper, and he had to get them to conform to a proper meter to make them fit, even if half the time you don't know what the words mean - although you have a general idea of what the song is about.  I know "Ballad Of a Thin Man" is about a paranoid newspaper reporter at a freak show, but what to make of lyrics like "You're a cow!  Give me some milk or else go home" or "You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground"?  Even Mr Jones himself couldn't have figured it out.  But then that must be what got Dylan the prize in the first place.  His pen produced some wonderful words that people are still trying to dissect years later, and one finds an interpretation in them that is different from other people's interpretations . . . even though the understanding of what the song is about (as opposed to what the words mean) is the same for everyone.  And isn't that what the best poetry achieves?
That said, I still feel embarrassed every time I admit to having recited a couple of Dylan's early songs in poetry readings in college.  It compensated or my lack of musical ability.  But then, giving a literature prize to a song lyricist isn't any more perplexing than giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the president of Colombia for trying to end a civil war he failed at ending . . . or for that matter, celebrating Madonna for destroying rock and roll by inducting her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  
Something is happening here, but I don't know what it is.  

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