Saturday, 31 December 2016

Is Bob Dylan a poet?

The decision to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature is one that has ruffled a few feathers in the poetry world. Judging by my Facebook feed, at least, it also seems to have reignited the ages-old row about just what constitutes poetry anyway. After all, Dylan wrote songs, not literary works. Is there anything in his lyrics which justifies them being read in the way one might read a collection of poetry?

Some of Dylan’s detractors are comfortable with the concept of ‘Dylan as poet’, but can’t help asking was he really so much greater a poet than his contemporaries that he deserved a Nobel Prize when, for example, Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen didn’t? Cohen, after all, was a poet; he only became a songwriter by accident when he realised he could make far more money selling his poems by putting them to music than he could by publishing them as purely written collections. Others take a much more purist approach. Song lyrics, they argue, are not poetry, but a separate artform altogether. They are written for an entirely different purpose. They get away with things that would be unforgiveable in true ‘page’ poetry: trite rhymes, faltering scansion, cliché, wilful obscurity under the guise of psychedelic whimsy. And Dylan, in the course of his vast repertoire, has probably been guilty of all of the above, somewhere along the line. So is it really fair to true poets to put Dylan on the same pedestal as, for example, WB Yeats or Seamus Heaney by giving him a Nobel Prize for his writing?

Those in the pro-Dylan camp are more generous in their assessment of whether or not his song lyrics qualify as poetry. Some go so far as to assert that they are more accessible poetic works than most of the stuff that has been published under the auspices of poetry in his lifetime. They note the impact of his early protest songs on the global peace movement, the powerful social commentary and satire in many of his later writings. They point to the heartbreak of Blood on the Tracks and ask: well, isn’t such a paean to Love Gone Wrong precisely the stuff that poetry is made of? Where the pro-Dylan camp often falters is that they state this in such effusive terms as to suggest that Dylan never wrote a duff rhyme or a wilfully obscure metaphor in his life – a suggestion that, even as a fan, I have to admit is ridiculous.

So: was Bob writing poetry or not? And just what is poetry anyway? One of my correspondents noted, somewhat gleefully, that poets themselves (and free verse poets especially) are often painfully inconsistent on this very subject. “There are no rules – anything goes!” they triumphantly declare one moment – the next, they’ll be adamant that (for example) one of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics isn’t poetry because it has an inconsistent rhyme scheme/irregular scansion/doesn’t look like a poem on the page. My correspondent tells me that he has had great fun recently posting up pieces of prose on his Write Out Loud blog and waiting for the avalanche of criticisms that “that’s not a poem!”

I tend to take a liberal approach to what is and isn’t a poem. Basically, if the person who wrote it says it’s a poem, then who am I to argue? That doesn’t necessarily mean that the piece of writing exhibits poetic qualities. Many poems (or pieces of writing that are presented as poems) aren’t especially poetic. I suspect that my correspondent’s mischievous prose offerings may well fall into this category. But if the writer asserts that they want their work to be approached in the way that one would approach a poem, then as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter whether it is presented as a sonnet, a song lyric, a rambling piece of free verse, or as prose. If there are poetic qualities in the writing, these should sing out. If there aren’t – or if there are features of the writing which clash with any poetic qualities – these will probably stand out too.

A piece of writing needn’t be presented as poetry to have poetic qualities. The prose of George Mackay Brown, for example, contains some of the most intensely poetic writing I have ever had the privilege to read. The flash fiction of writers like Steve Toase and Amal el-Mohtar is often so richly poetic that it can be a surprise to see it laid out on the page in paragraphs instead of stanzas. Some of my favourite songwriters – a gamut that ranges from Paul Simon to Jarvis Cocker, with Dylan somewhere in the mix – have a brilliantly poetic ear for a good lyric. Others don’t, but are no less great songwriters for all that. Kate Bush, for example, only rarely produces lyrics with a true poetic flair – but she’s a musician’s musician, far more interested in the sonic qualities of the music as a whole (words, accompaniment, rhythm and effects) than in the fine craft of rhyme and meter. It all depends on the writer’s intention for their composition.

So the question isn’t really “is it poetry?” The question that interests me far more is “does it have poetic qualities?” If the answer is yes, then the writing deserves recognition – be that a Nobel Prize or a round of applause at the local open mic.

And what constitute “poetic qualities”? I’ll happily throw some ideas out here. Poetic writing, for me, is a distillation – an attempt to convey intense experiences and sensations in as few words as possible. It does this by employing literary devices such as imagery and subtext to point at meanings beyond the literal text of the words themselves. And perhaps above all, it does this using a musicality of language which reinforces the mood and creates emotional resonances of its own.

I plan to look at these ideas in a bit more depth in future blog posts.

As for whether Dylan himself is a poet: I have no intention of answering that. You'll just have to weigh up the evidence and decide for yourselves.

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