By RE Katz
When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last week “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” the literary world promptly ripped itself in half trying to respond to the announcement. Some folks stood right up and applauded Dylan, and have since commended the Nobel committee for expanding the official genre of Literature to include such fringe, sad songsmiths of perpetual cultural relevancy. These people have loved Bob Dylan since forever, feel personally saved by his street-corner ballads, and are stoked about how much hipper the Nobel committee has gotten since they were in high school. They have immediately embraced song lyrics as the literary genre du jour, and have pulled their dusty guitars out of storage in order to relearn a couple of chords.
Meanwhile, others have balked at the mere suggestion that Bob Dylan has made a literary contribution. These emissaries of High Lit are extremely articulate and thus make powerful adversaries. The Nobel Prize in Literature is significant and impactful, they insist, and as a devoted readership, they feel pranked. What is worse, they assert, is that this choice confirms that we as a global community are just done reading. We don’t care about books anymore.
To both of these factions, the sage Nobel committee has responded with a shrug-like well you guys, Alfred Nobel had broad tastes so… yeah. Although poignant, the committee’s sentiment serves both arguments poorly. Sound the gong.
Meanwhile, Dylan won’t even return the Nobel committee’s phone calls about whether or not he’ll attend the award ceremony. Hey, he might be busy. It took him days to even acknowledge the Nobel Prize win on his website. And then a few days later, when the mention of the award disappeared as quickly as it arrived on the site, Dylan signaled not that he is too busy to address the news, but that he hasn’t yet decided how he wants this whole thing to affect his brand. Dylan now has to decide if he can be the same old disaffected rock poet while having this stuffy, international elite side-gig. He sure can’t be Bob Dylan anymore: that beloved nasally weirdo with golden one-liners sliding out of him on magic clouds.
Bob Dylan is now an author. More than that, he’s a successful author. This is just like that time he plugged in at Newport and lost half his fans (listen to those enthralling boos at the end!).
Which brings us to my favorite group of dissenters: There are people out there who are so devoted to Dylan as their subversive antihero that their beef bypasses the Nobel committee entirely. These guys want Dylan to decline the award. Many, like author Will Self, have called for Dylan to reject the award, just like punk rock icon Jean-Paul Sartre once did.
In summary, many who are mad about Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature are mad for the same reason — we just don’t want our musicians too serious… like, literature serious. Or more to the point, what we want and expect from songwriters and literary authors has always been different, and many of us would like to keep it that way. Music is not the same as literature. Why? Because we said so.
But then again, there are those rare transcendent experiences, when a musician can paint a picture with song, or a dancer seems to be able to ephemerally write poetry into thin air. Artists in music and literature who can contest or fracture the blanket assumptions separating these artistic forms often do succeed in creating the most enduring and influential works in either category. When a musician writes and publishes a book and calls it poetry or non-fiction — not a book of lyrics — audiences seem most able to make that leap with them. Although in reality, it’s not much of a leap at all. The musician-poets who travel most successfully between music and literature often make music that is genre-flexible in the first place.
Our best musician-poets produce all over the map, but what they all have in common this ability to create an innovative hybrid lyricism powerful enough to carry audiences seamlessly across media. Bob Dylan, it seems for most of his listeners, has that transcendent power. Who else does?
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The best example would be Langston Hughes, a black artist who gets remembered for his poetry, but whose writing is inextricable from music and performance. As one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance in the early twentieth century, he was embedded in a community of artists. Hughes collaborated with other black artists to break through the noise of oppressively racist mid-century standards. He famously collaborated with Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone in composing “Backlash Blues.” Hughes was never just a poet: He wrote operas and musicals, and used musical contours to shape the language of his poems. He blossomed in the break.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: Explore the intersection of music and poetry in our free course A Conversation with the Blues
Whether you listen to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” once, or over and over again, it’s easy to understand why she was invited to be an artist-in-residence at NASA. She is an otherworldly performance artist, composer, and screenwriter, and has published everything from sound diaries to a reinterpretation of Moby Dick called Stories from the Nerve Bible. What makes her unstoppable is also what makes her inscrutable to mainstream audiences: She creates in whatever modality works for the project, not unlike her late husband Lou Reed.
John Darnielle and David Berman
John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats) and David Berman (Silver Jews) remain essential cult personalities from the hyper-literate indie/alt scene of the ’90s–’00s . There is no doubt that both of these writers are best known for matching brilliant, nearly overdeveloped lyrics with catchy tunes, but their talent transcends the songwriting milieu. Darnielle is not only astoundingly prolific as a songwriter, but has also published two novels, one of which made it onto the National Book Award longlist. Berman studied poetry with Charles Wright, who then sent him to work with James Tate. When he was approached for a poetry collection, the resulting manuscript, Actual Air, is equal parts long-form prose poem and shoegaze Americana rock and roll.
Patti Smith is another artist whose musical output and literary production have always been concurrent. Smith had already published a book of poems and co-written the play Cowboy Mouth before her 1975 album Horses was released. She has hybrid roots, and her memoir Just Kids made it clear that her music had always found its roots in creative non-fiction. Everything she produces is an extension, a flexion, of that particular muscle. She always delivers to her audiences a painfully acute set of snapshots from her life.
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When he died in 1996, Tupac Shakur, born Lesane Parish Crooks, was only 25 years old. The son of a Black Panther, Shakur quickly became one of the fiercest voices in West Coast hip-hop. Rather than music or language, Tupac’s death is what most deeply mediates our relationship to him. One of the most popular editions of his posthumously published The Rose That Grew Through Concrete includes a foreword by black poet Nikki Giovanni and page scans from Shakur’s notebooks. We can see lyrics next to ideograms next to poetry — it’s important to see these things alongside and disrupting each other. Shakur’s writing practices cannot be broken apart from the protest songs and stories that he was raised on, and the freewheeling language play that took him from art school to “California Love.”
When art is on the line, there is a reason that “worthwhile” is not actually synonymous with “prize-winning.” These hybrid artists are valuable not because of their most popular works, but because each of them willingly risked, welcomed, or couldn’t avoid being flung outside the boxes people fit them into. In the end, there are no boxes: no music box or literature box. Music is not the only way in or out, for any of us.
So many brilliant songwriters have penned the poetry that we grew up with, from Kendrick Lamar to Kurt Cobain, to Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, all the way back to Jim Morrison and Robert Plant. Whose timeless prose has inspired you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
RE Katz works as a teaching literary artist for the Just Buffalo Literary Center. She is the author of Any Berry You Like (iO Books, 2014), an Author Collection (Awst Press, 2015), and Pony at the Super (Horse Less Press, 2015).