When, in 2016, the Nobel Prize for Literature was controversially awarded to singer-
songwriter Bob Dylan, the New York Times reviewer wrote this:
“In choosing a popular musician for the literary world’s highest honor, the Swedish
Academy, which awards the prize, dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature, setting
off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.”
Since then there have been as many distinguished voices opposing Dylan’s award as
supporting it – can song lyrics ever be considered poetry?
I was thinking of this continuing dispute as I joined my fellow guests on ‘The Book & the
Brain’, Tsitsi Sachikonye’s excellent radio show on RMR on Sunday evening.
Cape Town-based Rustum Kozain is one of South Africa’s most highly acclaimed poets,
having won numerous literary prizes over the years. He has just been in Grahamstown as a
visiting writer on the Creative Writing MA course at Rhodes University. He would probably
be on the ‘No’ side of the Bob Dylan debate.
Local resident and prolific writer of limericks, Andy Grewar, occupies the other position; he
is a big Dylan fan and was there to extol him. So the scene was set for a lively discussion,
which duly took place. Somewhat cravenly, I remained largely a silent if interested bystander.
Of course, no conclusion was reached – how could it be? But the arguments were intriguing,
as were snippets of Dylan’s music: The Times They Are A-changin’, of course, and a couple
of different versions of All Along the Watchtower.
Suddenly, Tsitsi blindsided me: “So Harry, what’s your view of Dylan as a Nobel laureate?”
And I confess that I’m not sure. My good friend, the UK poet John Lindley, is a passionate,
lifelong and erudite devotee of all things Dylan, and he could certainly put forward a
convincing case for the award, so who am I to argue? I simply don’t know enough, although I
love much of the music.
All that I can think of is to wonder whether Dylan’s lyrics can stand on their own as poetry
without the tune. And I believe they can.
To illustrate, here is the text of a Dylan song from the 1960s, a song I have known and loved
ever since that time. Lyrical, intelligent and Zen-like in its imagery, ‘Love Minus Zero’
seems to me to be every inch a poem. What do you think?
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
And make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her
In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all
The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge
The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
And the night blows cold and rainy
My love she's like some raven
At my window with a broken wing