How many lyrics must a man write before you can call him a poet?

Bob Dylan has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here’s the first three emotions that went through my mind.
1. Laughter – this must be a joke
2. Really? Bob Dylan? But he’s a singer!
3. Why?

So let’s go through this together. First “let me ask you one question…”

Why did he win the Nobel Prize?
Song lyrics can be described as a kind of aural poetry, and therefore in that sense lyrics would come under ‘literature’. His songs have affected a generation of people and he is known especially for his protest songs.

He was very unlikely to win the prize, with Ngugi wa Thiong’o* being the favourite at 7/2. The literature prize was awarded a week after the science medals – could this be because not all the judges were certain of that this was the right decision? He won “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. ‘Blonde on Blonde’ for example, Sara Danius (permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy) describes as “an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains, and his brilliant way of thinking.”

My second question is: is it right for a songwriter to win a Literature prize?
Bob Dylan said “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough, and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.” Is this enough of a reason though, to award someone a prize? The reasoning is, that America doesn’t engage enough with the wider tapestry of literature, but Dylan’s lyrics makes them engage, and connects them like a piece of string to the “big dialogue of literature”.
Dylan is the first songwriter to be awarded the Nobel prize, but is he the first performer that we think of as part of our rich literary heritage? Sara Danius said that although the choice may seem surprising, “if you look far back, 5000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it.”
The next thing that people are concerned about is: what does this mean for the future of the Nobel Literature Prize?
Does awarding the prize open up a floodgate of artists from across media getting awarded because they are poetic?
Bob Dylan was awarded the prize for his impact on a generation, I personally can think of many other authors that I think have had far more of an effect. Will the writers of ‘Friends’ Marta Kauffman and David Crane win the award? They have changed a generations views on relationships, they have developed characters that are still a part of our everyday lives. Why does J.K. Rowling not receive the prize, she is as well-known as many of the other prize winners and her series has created an entire world that millions of people long to be part of, and in some ways revitalised children’s literature.
For me, awarding Bob Dylan this prize is a mistake. I don’t think you can honestly compare Homer, and Bob Dylan. I also think that if they feel that they want to promote singers and musicians perhaps they should introduce a Nobel Music Prize. He is a fantastic artist who deserves awards, but does he deserve the Nobel Literature Prize? I’m not sure. If you don’t agree with me, then let’s follow Bob Dylan’s own advice: “You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine…” and let’s leave it at that.
Perhaps next week we will hear Margaret Atwood winning this year’s folk-rock award for her contributions to American/Canadian culture, you never know! It seems “the times they are a-changin”.
Have a wonderful week,
The Clumsy Wordshaker
*Ngugi wa Thiong’o is Kenyan writer embarked on a novel form of theatre and tried to “demystify” the theatre process. He was subsequently imprisoned for 22 years for his political action and was finally adopted as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. He then fled to America where he taught at Yale and has subsequently taught at a number of other universities. You can find out more information about him here:

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