Whether you dropped English at GCSE or you’re currently studying it at degree level, we all know of the great poets, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to John Donne to Robert Browning to Carol Ann Duffy.
Now, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” and the definition of poetry has been rewritten.
This controversial decision has incited a rift amongst the artistic community who took to Twitter to air their polarising opinions. Although author Salman Rushdie wrote: “from Orpheus to Faiz, song and poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.”
Fellow author Irvine Walsh, in the style of his novels, unabashedly said: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
Should Nobel only award the prize to certified poets and authors? Or is there no clear definition because of, as Rushdie said, the interweaving of poetry and song?
Poetry is part of the oral tradition. Before the written word, spoken poetry was a way to transmit ideas and feelings. Still, in non-literary cultures, poetry to drum beats is an important creative medium. While the world of academia, poetry anthologies, and essay analysis has led to a conviction that poetry can only be written, this is only a tiny part of the poetical tradition.
Ballads were popular forms of verse in the medieval period, and come from the French chansons balladées, or dancing music. They were often set to music and now the term has come to describe modern romantic rock songs.
Aubades were originally love songs orally performed by a man to his lover as a form of serenade. Metaphysical poets such as John Donne then used the tradition in their written poetry.
Nursery rhymes are one of the first pieces of poetry that we hear in our lives, and these are spoke aloud in a song like rhythm. This is, of course, only a few examples of many where poetry and song interlink, and these examples continue into modern times.
In the 1960s jazz and poetry evolved side by side. Both eschewed the tradition, and counterculture African American jazz musicians were developing their own outsider style in the same way as poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and ee cummings.
This turned into a hybrid art form known as jazz poetry. Poets of the beat generation like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac also had musical accompaniments when they recited their poetry.
Hip hop is another modern form that blurs the definition of poetry and music. It is spoken word to a beat, and is so similar to poetry that the University of Calgary in Alberta offers a course in rap linguistics.
According to professor Darin Flynn rap heroes, such as Eminem or Jay-Z, are “true poet laureates of the working class” and their songs “crisscross sound, emotion, grammar and multiple metaphors”.
Perhaps singer song writers are the modern poets. In a world where we are more receptive to music than traditional forms of poetry, poets may pick up an instrument instead of a pen as a way to convey their thoughts and feelings.
Although many do read the works of modern poets outside of academia, almost everyone listens to music. It’s quick to listen to, easily accessible and portable thanks to new technology and, because of its vast diffusion across many countries, it is a uniting and common force among people.
Of course, not all music is poetry. To decide what songs are poetical is another cause of contention, as it relies on taste and interests. There’s certainly a vague definition based around word choice and emotional depth that Nobel used when awarding Bob Dylan his prize.
It’s hard to disagree that Blowing in the Wind with lyrics: ‘Yes, and how many times must a man look up/ Before he can see the sky? /Yes, and how many ears must one man have/ Before he can hear people cry?’ is a piece of poetry.
Written like this on a page, detached from instruments and vocals, it could be in any poetry anthology. Even if you’re not an English student you can understand why the rhythms, repetitions, rhetoric, rhymes and clever word play align it with poetic tradition.
Blowing in the Wind also makes a mark beyond its composition. It’s been hailed as the anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement for its questions on peace, war, and freedom. It’s still applicable today in a world that is far from a tranquil stability, and where many world leaders could learn from the song’s lyrics.
Nobel did a brave thing awarding Bob Dylan the Literature Prize. It was an unorthodox decision, but it reflects what modern poetry should stand for. Nobel eschewed traditional literary rules, in the same manner as many contemporary poets.
If TS Eliot’s fractured verse of the Wasteland is considered poetry in academic circles, then why is song not just a radical and progressive form poetry too? Literature still exists because it has changed with the times, so literary people must accept that music is one of its modern embodiments.
As poet and journalist Pritish Nandy said: “Some of the world’s greatest songwriters have also been it’s finest poets.”