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Why Bob Dylan’s Songs Are Literature

Bertrand Guay/Getty Images

Yesterday, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the writers I know were either horrified or overjoyed. I am in the latter group, a tremendous Dylan fan, though I came to his music not as a teenager but later in life, around the time I had my first child. But everyone who loves Dylan loves him for his or her own reasons, and enumerating those reasons seems beside the point. After all, Dylan doesn’t need the Nobel to prove his lasting cultural importance. What’s interesting about this Nobel pick is the question it raises: Can music be literature?

My favorite comment about Dylan’s Nobel win came from the poet Matthew Zapruder, who, in response to people complaining that Dylan is not a poet, wrote on Facebook, “Ok, I agree it’s not poetry, but it’s NOT THE NOBEL PRIZE IN POETRY.”

Is Bob Dylan a poet? No, I don’t think so. But is his work literature? Yes, absolutely, and literature is what the Nobel Prize is for. His body of work adds up to some of the central literature of our time. And that must include the music that accompanied his lyrics, since lyrics by themselves are not poetry.

There is a common sense that poetry exists in a world of pure language, but a poem is, in fact, both the music and the words. Poetry’s sonic aspects—such as syllable sounds, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, dissonance, and meter—are meant to “accompany” the content, to set the mood, to refer to and elicit a sensory experience related to the emotions and images of the poem. They also refer back to the long history of language, echoing sounds and rhythms of the past, placing the poem in history, linking it to a timeless tradition. Dylan’s lyrics alone don’t compare to a poem, but a complete song—words, music, arrangement, instrumentation, all of it taken together—does.

(Now, this thesis introduces some complications: Does “song” mean a particular performance, a recording of a song, or even musical notation—the abstract idea of the song performed? For now, let’s presume we’re speaking of song recordings, which like books sit on the shelf and are more or less fixed in time.)

Dylan’s lyrics use more poetic techniques than practically anyone’s (Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell are his only peers in the American songwriting canon), but they are not poems, because, without the music to back them up, they don’t have that depth of reference and history that qualifies them as literature. But if Dylan’s lyrics aren’t quite poems, they’re pretty damn close. Take the first verse of “Desolation Row,” a song that is really a catalog of literary allusions:

Cinderella, she seems so easy.
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

This is a song written in what the poet Lucie Brock-Broido would call “long-haired couplets”: long lines that rhyme in groups of twos. (Except Dylan prints each line broken in half, presumably because that’s how they’re stretched over the melody of the song. Poetry is also about how form relates to content.) This verse is obviously rife with allusion (Cinderella and Romeo meet up here, and Ophelia, Robin Hood, and a host of other famous characters come up later in the song). As in the best contemporary poetry, Dylan mixes ancient and modern (Cinderella, meet Bette Davis), the quotidian (“back pockets,” “ambulances”), the elevated (Romeo), and the kind of memorable one-liners that lyrics need to be instantly apprehended (“You better leave”).

But Dylan’s got more than allusions and a sense of how words register. In his late masterpiece “Not Dark Yet,” a song about facing mortality, Dylan writes, “[I] Feel like my soul has turned into steel / I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal.” A steel soul is a powerful metaphor for the deadness that comes with age and loss. And if we want to get more technical about it, “steel” here is an objective correlative, T.S. Eliot’s fancy term for an object that signifies an emotion. The cold, unreflecting, inflexible metal, if you conjure it in your mind, makes you feel lonely and tired. That’s the stuff of poetry.

His music is equally literary. Dylan’s sources for the forms, styles, melodies, and even chord changes of his songs are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old—he’s always been an unparalleled interpreter of traditional songs, even as he’s deeply innovated song form. Perhaps his greatest technical innovation comes in lengthy tirades like “Desolation Row” and “Idiot Wind,” parades of repeated verse-chorus-verse structures that remind me of nothing so much as the epic poems of Homer. Those poems were cast in rhyming stanzas so they could be transmitted orally over generations before they were written down. Dylan saw a new use for that old form, soldering it to folk- and blues-based music. Homer catalogued the heroes and villains of ancient battles; Dylan does the same with the tropes and myths of his changing times.

If Seamus Heaney, himself a Nobel laureate, sourced his voices and rhythms to predecessors like Keats and Yeats and Wordsworth, then Dylan finds his in Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, as well as the writings of his contemporaries, the Beats (who were influenced by Blake and Baudelaire and Whitman), and the jazz musicians of the 1950s and 60s. And, of course, just as Dylan was inspired by the writers of his youth, so have most of the writers of the last half-century been inspired by Dylan; his fingerprint is everywhere in literature.

Dylan is like Homer in another significant way. His anonymous sources in the deep history of folk and blues mirror the influences of the ancient poet, who may or may not have been one writer, but who doubtlessly drew together the Greek myths to form The Iliad and The Odyssey. No, Dylan isn’t a writer of literary books. But perhaps no living artist has shaped the American soul, or plumbed its depths, as profoundly as Bob Dylan. And what’s literature for if not that?