The recent decision to award Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize in Literature has renewed vigorous debate over whether song lyrics ought to be considered poetry. The debate is not because Dylan is somehow a polarizing figure but rather because poetry is so often neglected as a literary medium that there is legitimate concern over a potential eclipse of poetry by the song.
It seems to me there is a rather obvious distinction to be made between the purpose of the poem and the song. The poem is meant to be spoken and the song to be sung. Whatever is different in our experiences of hearing the singing voice and the speaking voice would thus logically distinguish the one art form from the other, a point worth making given that a song need not be performed by anything other than the voice to still be considered a song and not a speech. Therefore, when speaking of performance, we must say that a song is not a poem nor a poem a song, though a song can be said to be poetic and a poem said to have a sing-song rhyme to it.
But I believe words are words, and when we read the written word, whether audibly or not, what matters is not invented literary conventions but rather how we as readers are affected by those words. For example, when we encounter Joyce’s sublime words in
“Ulysses,” “yes I said yes I will Yes,” it does not matter whether these words are best called prose or poetry. It is enough for us as readers that they are words, that they are powerful words, that they are words which move the reader to dizzying emotion and that they are words which reflect the stunning mastery of language in their author.
In my view, the real question for the songwriter is this: Do his words and wording have power inherent within themselves, or is the effect of the song on the listener dependent on the musicality of voice or instrument? If I can take the lyrics of a song, speak them aloud or read them to myself and be moved by virtue of the wording itself, then I am inclined to say I have encountered poetry. If the words cannot stand on their own, then what I am presented with is a song and not a poem. Regarding the selection of Dylan, the editor of Poetry Magazine, Don Share, writes: “Everybody knows that Western traditions of literature have long included bards and troubadours from the Welsh, Scots, Irish, Andalusian and Provençal verse-makers to Shakespeare, whose plays included lyrics. People who only experience poetry on the page might dissent, but this Nobel award is a way of bringing it all back home, of both reminding us of poetry’s roots and moving it forward through changing times—and for that, we should be pleased and grateful.” I would agree with Share here, except that I would note that Shakespeare, known by the moniker The Bard, is a noted wordsmith: it is precisely that his wording speaks for itself, whether lyric or prose, that we celebrate him as a literary genius. The bard who is also a poet is thus the bard whose poetry is served by but not dependent on the accompanying melody of the lyre or singing voice.
Song lyrics can be poetry, but they ought not be seen as poetry by default. The songwriter who wishes to be called also a poet must earn this title through such an attention to words that the lyrics speak for themselves. Very few songwriters ought to be called poets, but those whose words glimmer in their own light, whether Homer, Shakespeare or Dylan, can truly be called poets.