American Lyrics: Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

In case you missed it, last week Bob Dylan won The Nobel Prize for literature. Sara Danius, spokesperson of the committee, said Dylan was chosen “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Undeniably, Bob Dylan’s songs and his book Tarantula (which reads a lot like William Burroughs being pushed over the edge sanity) have been centerpieces of American literary tradition–from the bluesy ballads of his self-titled album to the Beat sensibilities in Blonde on Blonde. But not everyone was happy with the announcement.

Several members of the literary community scoffed that a songwriter could be literature, let alone Nobel Prize worthy literature. In On Poetry, Glyn Maxwell rightly states that songs rely, partially, on melody and music to give their lyrics power whereas poetry has only silence. For the most part, Maxwell is right. Music and lyrics are almost so inextricable that one cannot exist without the other. On the other hand, poets like Tracie Morris, Douglas Kearney, Saul Williams, and Kate Tempest (who has several books and records under her belt) use sound and performance as poetic expression.

Above is one of my favorite Dylan songs. Dylan wrote and performed the song to impress his friend and poet Allen Ginsberg. When I first came across “Visions of Johanna,” I was haunted by its imagery and the loneliness that is contained in every syllable Dylan rasps. Honestly, the song made me want to be a poet. In short, I am not one of those who is enraged by Dylan’s win. The 75 year old singer songwriter has been a constant force in the American art scene since his emergence over 50 years ago.

That said, Dylan isn’t the only musician whose lyrics are lush and poetic. Many artists write lines that blur the line between poetry on the page and poetry through the PA. One of those artists is Joanna Newsom. The harpist and lyricist writes some of the most idiosyncratic and arresting songs I’ve heard. Her vocal melodies and harp lines have a complex rhythmic relationship that is nearly impossible to untangle. But this isn’t about music as it relates to lyrics but lyrics themselves. Newsom’s lyrics are powerful bursts of nuance and wordplay. Her phrases move with the intentional weirdness of Karen Volkman and the ornamental beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Another musician who has poetry-worthy lyrics is Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. Clark’s lyrics unspool with an incredible amount of tension. The narratives she details bounce between sunshine and tragedy in a way that is completely seamless and utterly terrifying. The musician and lyricist has been open about her debt to Dylan Thomas (a namesake she shares with Bob Dylan) and David Mamet (citing the playwright’s work as major inspirations to many of her songs on Strange Mercy). While it may be difficult to separate melody and words, St. Vincent’s sense of ellipse is unparalleled in the music community. Stringing together lines and lines of evocative imagery, Clark’s lyrics make for nightmarish and tense poems of clipped syntax.

Finally, it seems absurd to write about lyrics without looking at hip hop and rap. It seems equally absurd to look at hip hop and rap without mentioning Vince Staples. Staples’ 2015 release, Summertime ’06, burns with the angst and energy of Shane McCrae or Danez Smith. Aside from his energy (partially due to the beats that back his lyrics), Staples has an eye on craft that is lightyears ahead of most Creative Writing MFAs. Looking at the first couplet of “Lift Me Up,” (Hey, I’m just a n**** until I fill my pockets / And then I’m Mr. N****, they follow me while shoppin’”) it’s apparent the young rapper knows how to create a poetic line.

Not only is Staples spitting lines that are kaleidoscopic in their linguistic turns but he’s also linking ideas through sound. The set-up and anti-climax of facing racism whether one is rich or poor has never been so devastating as it is on the break between “pockets” and “And then I’m…” Further the link between getting money and the urge to spend is linked sonically through the near rhyme of “pockets” and “shoppin”–a link the rapper explores further on his forthcoming Prima Donna EP.

This is just to say that there are some wonderfully talented lyricists putting out records these days. Whether you’re a fan of Dylan or a fan of words and their musicality in general, Mills Record Company has some wonderful records of seriously great lyrics.

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