Response to David Orr re: Bob Dylan

I greatly enjoyed reading David Orr’s latest “On Poetry” column, in which he discusses Bob Dylan’s elevation to poet-status by the Swedish Academy. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I feel somewhat compelled to write a rebuttal, although I think I agree on many of Orr’s points. I simply disagree with the conclusions he draws from them.

To begin, since this is a partisan struggle to begin with, where one is either for Bob-Dylan-as-Nobel-Laureate, or against Bob-Dylan-as-Nobel-Laureate, I should state my own deeply ambiguous position. That is to say, I find it absolutely wonderful that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for literature, but I think the award comes several decades too late, on the one hand, and on the other hand, I can think of many more deserving bards who should probably should have received the prize before Bob Dylan: namely artists like Robert Johnson, Langston Hughes and Jimi Hendrix. My reasons for this are, just like all the decisions by the Swedish Academy, largely political, but they are culturally important as well. That is to say it’s important to honor the tradition whence the artistry comes, and Bob Dylan, by his own acknowledgment, is building largely off that tradition. In any case, this is more of a side note, as the thrust of Orr’s article was what it means to award a singer-songwriter the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it’s this argument I’m most interested in addressing.

Orr does a wonderful job of building up arguments for why song lyrics should be considered poetry, and then he deconstructs – or maybe it’s better to say he interrogates – each of those claims, and comes to the conclusion that they are all deeply problematic. The first point that he deals with is that song lyrics, when printed on a page, often look like poetry. Orr writes: “But they’re very rarely printed on a page, at least for the purpose of being read as poems. Mostly they’re printed so that people can figure out what Eddie Vedder is saying in “Yellow Ledbetter.” This is an amusing way of dismissing Eddie Vedder as a possible contender for poet, but it ignores the fact that all throughout the second half of the 20th century, plenty of poetry has been meant for performance. Spoken-word poetry is poetry; it cannot be considered anything but poetry, as it is defined by the very word. When people go hear spoken word poetry, they go to “listen to these poems.” Many spoken word poems are never written down. In fact, a New Yorker Radio Hour podcast has Bob Dylan describing the poetry of Greenwich Village street poet William “Big” Brown as “the best poetry he had ever heard.” Which leads us to the point about the Ancient Greeks. I agree wholeheartedly with Orr when he writes, “the fact that a group of people thought about something a certain way nearly three millenniums ago doesn’t seem like a compelling argument for thinking the same way today.” However, Orr’s conception of poetry is ignoring the changes that happened in poetry over the last hundred years. Street poets, spoken-word poets, and poetry as performance has changed poetry radically over the last hundred years. If poetry did not change it would become a moribund art. But Orr is describing poetry as if there have been no dramatic changes in the art form between the publication of “The Wasteland” in 1922 and today, and that strikes me as deeply problematic itself.

This leads us directly into Orr’s argument about the music. While it’s true that a song is a union of music and words, which allows songwriters to get away with even the sloppiest phrasing, Orr ignores the importance of genre in songwriting. Genres such as blues and folk music, the tradition which Dylan is coming out of, are deeply interested in language. This is something that Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown recognized very early on, and used to their advantage as “traditional” poets. Moreover, traditions like spoken-word gave rise to rap, which, beginning (arguably) with a group that defined themselves as “The Last Poets,” has often been self-consciously literary. This, again, is just another aspect of how poetry has changed over the last hundred years. To be sure, there are still plenty of traditional poets writing in the traditional words-on-page manner, but to deny that poetry has expanded beyond this is to guard an outdated conception of poetry. Changes in poetry are always met with resistance, of course. Thus, we have Peter Bayne, in 1875, writing of Walt Whitman:

The “Leaves of Grass,” under which designation Whitman includes all his poems, are unlike anything else that has passed among men as poetry. They are neither in rhyme nor in any measure known as blank verse; and they are emitted in spurts or gushes of unequal length, which can only by courtesy be called lines. Neither in form nor in substance are they poetry.

Of course, no one today denies that Whitman was a poet, and most agree he was a first-class poet; similarly, I suspect no one in a hundred years will deny that Bob Dylan is a poet. If people will not bestow the same honor on Kid Rock, it’s because Kid Rock has never fashioned himself as a poet, nor has he been interested in the poetic tradition the way Dylan has; Bob Dylan, coming out of the folk and blues traditions, publishing an (admittedly unreadable) experimental novel, and working with canonized poets such as Allen Ginsberg – and not seeming so far away from the Ginsbergian aesthetic himself – has most definitely fashioned himself as a poet, and is coming out of a very American tradition of poetry, where the line between music and poetry has blurred.

The most interesting point comes next. Orr rightly points out that by bestowing the term poet on Dylan, we are bestowing him with an honorific. Orr writes, “poetry has an unusually large and ungrounded metaphoric scope,” and this is true. Shelley told us long ago that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and suddenly everything became possible. Poetry became elevated to a level heretofore unknown, and poets have since become something like sacred priests. While I’m critical of this attitude, mostly because of the poetry-as-religion connotations implicit within it, it is nevertheless fair to say that poets, if poetry is to stay a vital art form, should remain relevant to more than just a select few, and I think poetry’s intense focus on language should be praised. So, by bestowing the honorific title of “poet” on those musical artists whose lyrics move us deeply, we are making poetry – which is to say, that close attention to language which defamilarizes the everyday and makes us look at the world anew –relevant beyond the academies and the not-very-widely-read magazines aimed at selective audiences. (read: white, college educated, upper-middle class) This is basically to say that poetry, especially good poetry, deserves the connotation of the sublime it has been awarded. Moreover, there is no confusion about where the metaphor ends and reality begins, except in the arts. As Orr admits, we all know when someone says, “that jump shot was pure poetry,” – that this has nothing to do with the creation of poetry. But any work of art containing language has the potential to challenge us, and rightly so. How do we classify Jean Toomer’s Cane? How do we classify Andre Breton’s Nadja? How, for that matter, do we classify Goethe’s nearly-unproducable Faust? As soon as language-as-a-central-concern is introduced into an art-work, the possibility of poetry arises.

Orr is right when he says Bob Dylan partly received the award because he fits the bill for the idea of a poet. This is clear enough, and this goes back to my political argument at the beginning. But just because Dylan fits the bill, well, that’s no reason to deny him the prize either. As for the prizes being awarded one-way, where musicians are recognized as poets, but poets never as musicians, suffice it to say that John Ashberry doesn’t produce albums, and so he will never be awarded a Grammy. However, Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly is built up of tracks that, line by line, develop the poem Lamar recites at the end of the album, – a poem that is unambiguously a poem, as it is recited as such, without music – did win the Grammy in 2016. Kendrick Lamar is a poet. Clearly. Just as Bob Dylan is; and I would have been delighted to see Lamar win both the Grammy and the Nobel Prize for Literature. But, then, I suspect that’s too radical a step for the Academy to take anytime in the next fifty years.

– Whit Frazier