One of the biggest controversies of the past few weeks has been Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The ensuing national conversation about whether or not he deserved it has been met with confusion by the general public and silence by the laureate. In becoming the first musician to win the prestigious award, Dylan has broken the glass ceiling and inadvertently become the center of a conversation on the literary merit of musical lyrics in contrast with novels and poetry.
In discussing whether or not Dylan’s body of work deserves a literary honor, another living legend comes to mind. Leonard Cohen, who finds himself in top form after releasing the excellently pensive You Want It Darker last week, won the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature back in 2011. Nobody had any qualms, seeing as Cohen has published both poetry and prose throughout his life. If the tales of his life on the Greek island of Hydra are any indication, the man’s very life is a poem.
Cohen and Dylan alike have inspired both legendary and rising troubadours of heartbreak, and have firmly establishing themselves in the modern musical canon. It’s unclear as to why Dylan’s credentials are put into question: he’s made a name based on the poeticism of his lyrics, and, like Cohen, has published literary works. To take away from the literary—dare I say, poetic—value of his music is to take away from the emotional resonance of music altogether. His winning the award is a reward to music itself, to the poetry of lyrics, and an earth-shaker to the Swedish Academy and the public conscious. If we didn’t question Cohen, why would we question, of all musicians, Dylan?
John Clare, a contemporary inspiration to iconic romantic poets such as John Keats and Lord Byron, wrote in his classic long poem The Progress of Rhyme “My harp, though simple, was my own.” Claire, now renowned for his nature poetry, was labeled the “peasant poet” during his lifetime, a title he resented. Dylan reached a renown in his life that eluded Claire, but he has undoubtedly made his mark in letters. His guitar and his pen, though different than a traditional “writer,” continue to be his own.
To dive into arguments over Dylan’s deserving the prize, we would have to dive into a much bigger question that’s been spinning academia and philosophy since their outset: what is literature? That’s another piece altogether, and far too long to write on here. One thing is for certain: Dylan is a musician, and a poet of the times. In the end, doesn’t truly great literature shine a mirror on the time it’s written in?