For a song

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize reignited an old debate: can song lyrics be considered poetry?

The recent award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan reignited an old debate: are song lyrics literature, or more precisely poetry? The BBC published the views of a number of authors and literature professors.

Contrary to what might be expected, academia is often very favourable to popular culture.

Dylan’s academic following started in the 1970s when former Oxford poetry professor Christopher Ricks compared him to John Keats.

But the appreciation extends well beyond Dylan. John Sutherland, professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London does not hesitate to compare a blistering song such as Tupac Shakur’s Hit ’Em Up to 19th century American poet Walt Whitman’s vers libre (“free verse”). Very word-centered, says Sutherland, rap’s essence rests in rhyming and unfettered self-expression.

Famed author Salman Rushdie, in a tweet reproduced by CNBC, writes that “from Orpheus to Faiz, song and poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”

Not everyone agrees. In The Guardian, as reported by the BBC, Simon Armitage, a popular UK poet, wrote: “Songwriters are not poets. Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you're left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors."

In the social media sphere, many disagree with Rushdie. “I'm a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies,” tweets Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh. Adds Zito: “The Nobel Prize for Literature has always been a joke, but awarding it to Bob Dylan might be the biggest disrespect to the literary world.”