The literary world was thrown into a tizzy when musician Bob Dylan was pronounced winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. The memes are already circling the Internet, and the literature snobs (yes, I said it) have already emerged, armed with a long list of wonderful writers who weren’t granted a Nobel in their lifetime and a Pandora’s box eager to release a good deal of bemoaning on command. Because how is it that a singer can win a literary prize over an author?
A couple years ago I had a professor who once asked us who our favorite Spanish poets of the twentieth century were. Some students rattled off a string of big names: Federico García Lorca, Ángel González, Jaime Gil de Biedma. Others named a few poets that toed the line of the unknown. And others squirmed in our seats, because, well, we weren’t big on poetry. We announced this expecting to be killed, or worse, expelled (a little Hermione Granger humor.) But instead, she asked us if we didn’t like music. Because if we did, she said, then we did like poetry. We simply didn’t know it.
Songwriters are some of the most underrated, most ridiculed poets in today’s world. Don’t break out the holy water just yet – think about it. What is a poem? It’s a verbal composition, typically in verse, often characterized by a highly rhythmical quality and extremely careful language. That’s it. Unless a song is instrumental, it’s a verbal composition. It’s usually written in verse. And what is more rhythmic than a song?
As for the language, the reality is that many songwriters agonize over the right choice of words in a way that would make Flaubert proud. They smash verbal conventions with an enthusiasm that Woolf would surely approve of. And they portray stories so carefully crafted that they’re a world in and of itself, the same way a short story by Borges might be.
I’m not all that familiar with Dylan’s music. What little I did hear of it, I enjoyed. But even if I hadn’t, even if I hated his lyrics with the burning passion of a thousand suns, I would still defend his claim, as a songwriter, to be considered eligible for a literature prize. Because he’s a poet. Because songwriters are.