A couple months ago Bob Dylan accepted a Nobel Prize for literature. This might strike some as odd, because of the stigma of grouping lyricism with literature. People may argue, if one lyricist’s work is considered literature, where do we draw the line? Can the work of Miley Cyrus or Drake be looped in with Bob Dylan and the like? Can Desiigner’s “Panda”, of which the chorus reads “Panda, Panda Panda, Panda, Panda, Panda, Panda, I got broads in Atlanta, Twistin’ dope, lean, and the Fanta” be considered literature? How do we make the distinction between music and literature?
Yet on the other side of the debate we must consider that poetry stems from song. We study Sappho’s verse as high literature without disregarding the fact that it would be sung in time with a lyre. We look at William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience or Mina Loy’s Songs to Joannes with some consideration of the role of music in their titles. So why not consider popular lyrics as poetry? Certainly Bob Dylan’s work is poetry. Not only has this fact been validated with an award, but also its inspiration, timelessness, and literary form are on par with that of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Pound’s cantos.
Evaluating a lyricists work as literature is important to the way English classes are adapting and changing in our modern society. UPenn offers an English elective on “Wasting Time on the Internet”. Duke University boasts an English class that studies the television show “The O.C.”, aptly titled “California Here We Come: The O.C. & Self-Aware Culture of 21st Century America”. Central Michigan University, Western University, and Nipissing University all offer courses that specifically focus on the Harry Potter series. So is it so crazy that lyrics can be seen as literature? By nature, literature is subjective, so it’s no surprise that this debate is as well.
A piece by The Atlantic notes that Bob Dylan’s opinion on the subject is that “It’s not that he doesn’t want to question whether his songs are literature, it’s that he hasn’t had the time”. Dylan’s humility on the subject may not be helpful to the current debate, but it may offer its own solution: who cares. Whether you consider lyrics to be a valid form of literature or not, the fact that alternative forms of writing are now being considered as high styles of writing is important to the study of literature as a medium. The subjectivity of writing has changed the landscape of writing for the better. Maybe we should all be like Bob Dylan, too busy writing, reading, and enjoying it all to consider whether or not the content is literature.
Leah Girvitz is a Torontonian poet and topical writer, in her third undergraduate year at UBC. She is an English literature major and creative writing minor. Leah’s interests and aspirations include working in the field of entertainment law, and abolishing the patriarchy.
Image (Bob Dylan and Joan Baez): public domain