How many roads must a man walk down?
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
Nobody knows whether Bob Dylan will eventually emerge and accept the Nobel Prize for Literature for “having created a new poetic tradition within the great American song tradition.” So far, he has not, and that has caused a lot of anxiety among the Nobel committee who have to complete all the procedures before the official awarding of the prize on Dec. 10. Interestingly, even if Dylan refuses to accept an award because it was initially set up by an armaments manufacturer, the Nobel committee will still continue to include the name of Bob Dylan on their list of winners of this year’s prize for literature – just as they do for one of Dylan’s famous predecessors in the same category, Jean-Paul Sartre, who declined it in 1964 on the principle that he never accepted any official honor.
But is Dylan a literary figure or is he – as he called himself – a “man of song and dance?”
The surprising choice of the Nobel committee fuelled a discussion that has been simmering for decades over the dividing line between poetry and songwriting. The easy answer that a contemporary literature scholar would give us would be that poems do not have music and lyrics do, that poetic verses are written to be recited and not sung. But many would also put forward value judgements, such as that poetry is “more serious,” that it requires more mastery in literary forms, more sophisticated perceptions and intellectual depth which consequently means that lyrics are less serious, less complex and more shallow.
This argument may also imply that poetry is something that ordinary people cannot understand and lyrics are things that people can. In other words, the same old discussion between literary and popular culture.
But things are not as clear-cut as that; because in that way, we would have to accept that all poetry is good and all lyrics are bad, which, of course, is not the case.
There is an inherent elitism on behalf of all those “professional” literary experts who objected loudly that the award was given to a popular artist as opposed to a “genuine” bard who applies the rules of the poetic art. But on the other hand, there is some arrogance on behalf of the defenders of song lyrics of being accepted as high art just because it can be understood and felt more easily by people.
Going back in time, we may find out that Homer – if indeed it was him or several poets who composed the ancient masterpieces of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” – actually recited his lyrics on the lives and adventures of famous heroes; what we know today is the transcription of their metric lyrics which stayed in the collective memory. And those “rhapsodies” as one of the oldest literary genres of humanity became a musical genre in recent times. Can one claim that “The Iliad’s” verses were just lyrics with little poetic value?
There are many examples of how highly inspirational lyrics of music have acquired a place among the best examples of poetry. And there are equally many examples of good poetry which gained new life by serving as lyrics for major pieces of musical works.
One of the most particular cases is the use of the collection of poems by the late Greek poet Yannis Ritsos by the composer Mikis Theodorakis. Theodorakis used the lyrics of the collection “Epitaphios” in 1958 and brought poetry into popular cultural, launching a new era in popular Greek music based on high-quality lyrics a tradition that largely still holds.
Ironically, Theodorakis went on to use the poems of both Greek Nobel laureates, George Seferis and Odysseas Elyitis, for his later works. His was followed by many others and good poetry raised the quality of lyrics writers who had to compete in a demanding environment as good poetry became familiar to the people.
Citing 70 reasons why Dylan is the most influential figure in popular culture, the Independent newspaper put “because he wrote the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” as number one and because “he made teenagers interested in poetry again” as number two.
The choices of the Nobel committee have not always been popular. And they had received a lot of criticism when they awarded Dario Fo the prize for Literature in 1997. They had accused them of choosing a “lightweight performer.” It is the same bias that wants Dylan to be just a “song and dance man” as opposed to a “rhapsodic poet.”