When singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the choice proved controversial. There were those who approved, for example novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie, who wrote on Twitter: “Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the Bardic tradition”. But others on Twitter criticised the decision, like novelist Irvine Welsh’s vicious reaction: “…this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”. Others used irony, such as writer Gary Shteyngart: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.” (all three quotes from 13th October, 2016).
At the heart of this debate is the question of whether Dylan is a poet or not. British poet laureate Simon Armitage, despite his fondness for his music, doesn’t think so. Whereas literary critic, academic and author of “Dylan’s Vision of Sin” (2004) Christopher Ricks thinks he is.
The debate isn’t just about Dylan. It is about how we define poetry and whether popular songs can be poetry at all. Few would doubt there are many songwriters whose lyrics are intelligent and literate. From Cole Porter to Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and taking in the likes of Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Stevie Wonder and many others, literate lyrics have been a feature of popular music since commercial recordings began in the 1920s. But according to poet laureate Simon Armitage:
Songwriters are not poets. Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors. (The Guardian, 27 June, 2008).
Clearly, the lyrics of popular songs are verse, yet the likes of Armitage argue they are not poetry. So what, if anything, is the difference between poems and song lyrics? Jane Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra, defines the difference thus:
Poems, generally speaking, behave on the page, and operate against silence. Song lyrics, generally speaking, perform in sound, and operate in a relationship with musical apparatus. (“The Conversation” 19th June, 2017. https://theconversation.com/whats-in-a-name-writing-across-borders-of-poetry-and-music-79669).
However, poet A. E. Houseman (author of the perennially popular “A Shropshire Lad”) suggests that any definition of poetry is going to be inadequate:
I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. (“The Name and Nature of Poetry” 1933).
Houseman highlights the problems with any attempt to coral poetry inside a fence: given the subjective nature of literary appreciation, how can we have an objective definition that everyone can agree on? Poetry – and poets – will always find ways of smashing through any artificial barriers.
The notion that poetry is for the page and song for the voice, as expressed by Jane Webb, is not only limiting. It also ignores the whole history of poetry as well as the activities of contemporary writers who call themselves poets.
Let’s look at that history. The first thing we notice is that poetry pre-dates literate society. Indeed, the very notion of it as something for the page is a relatively recent one. In the Western tradition, among the earliest examples of the art are the works attributed to Homer: “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, works that are among the most influential ever written, the latter even being the inspiration for the 2000 comedy film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” featuring bluegrass and acoustic country music.
We don’t know exactly when Homer’s poetry was composed, indeed we don’t even know whether the name “Homer” referred to just one person or several. It is estimated they were written about the late 8th century BCE, but we aren’t even certain about that. Nor are we certain about the exact text of the poems. This is for the simple reason they were originally transmitted orally and as they were passed from place to place, year to year, person to person, the text could change. We think the poems were first written down in the 6th century BCE, at least 200 years after they were first composed.
Homer isn’t an isolated example of poetry as an oral art. At one time, it was the norm. For example, the Old English epic “Beowulf” is thought to have been originally transmitted orally, only first being written down in the tenth century CE. That the poem contains different dialects and combines both Pagan and Christian elements certainly argues for it being composed and handed down orally.
Many of the Norse sagas, such as “The Orkneyinga Saga” and the various Icelandic Sagas were compiled in the middle ages from oral sources which had been passed down from generation to generation.
Nor was it just epic poetry and sagas that had their roots in the oral tradition. In Ancient Greece, lyric poetry was sung to the accompaniment of the lyre or similar instruments. One of the most famous lyric poets of that era was Sappho, from the island of Lesbos, a woman who sang love poems to other women. Elegies too were oral poetry, generally recited to a flute accompaniment.
Even if we restrict ourselves to the British Isles, we see that some of our most famous poets were not – or not always – page poets. Three examples will show this.
Firstly, William Shakespeare who some have called our greatest poet ever. He did write sonnets and longer poems such as “Venus and Adonis”. However most of his best poetry is found in his plays, works that were written to be performed and that were subject to changes depending on how rehearsals and performances went. The texts of his plays were not routinely printed during his lifetime, apart from copies likely to be used by actors. It wasn’t until 1623, seven years after his death, that 36 of his plays were published in the First Folio. People have argued ever since as to how accurate these texts are and even today directors of his dramas play around with the text.
As anyone who has been forced to read one of his plays without the advantage of seeing a performance will know, his plays only really come to life on the stage, the screen or on radio. Whether it be the murder of the poet Cinna after being mistaken for one of the conspirators in “Julius Caesar” or Lady Macbeth trying to wipe imaginary blood from her hands or the courtroom scene in “The Merchant of Venice”, we need to see or hear or have seen or heard these performed to relate emotionally to the words and action. It makes no sense to me to teach Shakespeare merely on the basis of written texts without access to performances.
Secondly, Robert Burns is often referred to as the “Bard of Scotland”. Although he did write page poetry, he is perhaps most famous for his songs. Indeed he considered himself a songwriter, played the fiddle and the cittern and put his words to music he either composed himself or adapted from traditional sources. According to Dr Fred Freeman in his introduction to the CD box set “The Complete Songs of Robert Burns”: …he considered it [songwriting] high art; the ideal medium for much of his creative output….For Burns, composition and editing became, primarily, a matter of what he termed “ballad simplicity”.
As with Dylan, his melodies can enhance or change the meaning of the words, hence for example the debates over which tune provides the best accompaniment to the words of “Auld Lang Syne”. Poems such as the achingly beautiful “Red Red Rose” really do come to life when sung. When folk singer Sheena Wellington sang “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”, Burns’ ode to social justice and internationalism, at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, her performance gave extra relevance to the poem. And reggae-influenced versions of his “The Slave’s Lament” provide additional poignancy and power to the words.
Thirdly, 18th century Highland Gaelic-speaking poet Rob Donn Mackay, who could neither read nor write. He composed his poetry in his head, memorised it and travelled throughout the far north counties of Sutherland and Caithness, reciting his poetry. He also sang many of his poems, sometimes borrowing melodies and sometimes composing his own airs. His wonderful poems have only survived because before his death he dictated them to a scribe. In her 2016 thesis “Rob Donn Mackay: Finding the Music in His Songs” (Edinburgh University), Dr Ellen Beard writes:
…a critical assessment of Rob Donn merely as a poet seriously underestimates his achievement in combining words and music to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Whether Dylan’s poetry works on the page or not is irrelevant because – like much of the work of Shakespeare, Burns and Rob Donn – it was never meant to be consumed that way. Insisting that the page is the standard by which we judge poetry shows either a perverse rewriting of the history of poetry or an ignorance of that history.
One of the cultural features of the second half of the 20th century was the rise of poets who rejected the page as the height of the art form. The Beat Poets like Allen Ginsberg not only saw public readings as a crucial part of their art, but they also performed and collaborated with musicians (in Ginsberg’s case, including Dylan) as well as accompanying themselves. Ginsberg’s angry, hallucinatory, surrealist and sexually explicit masterpiece “Howl” was performed publicly before it was published. According to Ginsberg himself, the structure of the poem is based on bebop, a type of jazz.
In the 1960s, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen decided to try his hand at songwriting. He moved to New York, was for a while involved with Andy Warhol’s “Factory”, began singing at folk festivals and in 1967 released the first of many critically acclaimed albums. His 1993 print collection “Stranger Music” brought together both his published poetry and lyrics of his songs in one volume.
At the same time in Britain, a group of Liverpool poets influenced by the Beat movement and the pop music of the Beatles and other bands from that city, began writing accessible poetry that was performed in public, often with musical accompaniment. The collection “The Mersey Sound” – featuring the poetry of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten – became one of the best selling poetry collections of all time. All three of these poets also worked successfully with musicians, writing songs or adapting their poetry to the music, with Roger McGough’s band Scaffold (which also included Paul McCartney’s brother Mike) even having a number 1 hit in the pop charts with “Lily the Pink”.
Equally as important as the Liverpool poets is Linton Kwesi Johnson who was born in Jamaica and moved to London in 1963. In the early 1970s, influenced by reggae he developed a form of deeply political performance poetry he called dub. He has also been a major influence on the development of rap.
Both the Liverpool poets and the likes of Linton Kwesi Johnson laid the foundations for the development of performance poetry as a major force, one that is still going strong today with poetry slams, pub nights and festivals. In his early days, John Cooper Clarke often performed his poetry to a punk rock accompaniment. Benjamin Zephaniah has used dub and reggae in his work. And more recently, Kae Tempest has become one of the most successful of performance poets, often using the techniques of rap.
No matter how contemporary the likes of Kae Tempest might sound, they and other poets, songwriters and singers – including Bob Dylan – continue to return poetry to its historical and cultural roots as an oral art form. Rather than erecting elitist barriers, we should be celebrating the wonderful diversity of poetry – in print, in performance and accompanied by music.
Kevin Crowe May 2022.
Kevin Crowe Biography:
Kevin was born in Manchester in 1951. He has been a Dylan fan since the mid 1960s, first saw him live in 1969 at the Isle of Wight Festival and has been to numerous concerts since.
Before going to university as a mature student, he worked in various factories and bars. After getting his degree, he worked in social care for many years (including ten years working with people with HIV/AIDS), before moving to the Scottish Highlands with his husband in 1999 to open a bookshop and restaurant.
Kevin has over the years had fiction, poetry and non-fiction published in many magazines, anthologies and in recent years online. He has read his work at many locations, including the Scottish Parliament, Glasgow’s Aye Write Festival, Ullapool Book Festival and John O’ Groats Book Festival. In 2020, he had his collection of short stories “No Home In This World” published by Manchester independent publisher Fly-On-The-Wall Press, the title coming from a song written by Woody Guthrie. Also in 2020, he was appointed as editor of the award-winning Highlands LGBT+ magazine “UnDividingLines”.