October 19, 2016
The boundary between pop lyricism and poetry or literature has long been a cause of debate, and never more so than in the recent decision to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize For Literature. The Quietus’ Luke Turner explores the frontier….
When Bob Dylan was awarded Nobel Prize For Literature, Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the judging academy, claimed that Dylan is “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition”, although Dylan is best known as a musician, Danius pointed out that poetry and song were once one and the same. Citing Ancient Greek poets Sappho and Homer she said that “they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan.” Similarly, the lyre-wielding poet and prophet Orpheus was known as “the father of song”.
There has been dissent about the Nobel Prize decision, however, with some critics branding Dylan an overrated lyricist undeserving of the prize. Academic Germaine Greer has blamed Dylan for the standard of creative writing that her students hand in, slamming him thus: “It’s not verse, not even doggerel. Nor is it prose, because it doesn’t make sense…. it’s just annoying.”
While there might be an element of snobbery that stops lyricists receiving the same acclaim as poets, it’s not always the case all lyrics are great poetry, or all poets can be great lyricists.
Leonard Cohen, shortly to release a new album, was a poet by profession before he crossed over to have phenomenal mainstream success as a songwriter. Interestingly, he and Dylan long had a friendly rivalry over their methods. Whereas Dylan was able to bang out a track like ‘I And I’ in a matter of minutes, it took Cohen as much as a decade to finally craft the lyrics to his song ‘Anthem’, and it’s affirming promise that despite the bleakness around us “there is a crack in everything / that’s where the light gets in”.
Cohen is a poet in a more literary sense, his lines weaving together personal love with existential crises of human nature and faith, and his collections of writing are on the education syllabus in his native Canada.
Artists like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, the Manic Street Preachers and The Clash however have taken a more direct approach, using words as commentary to describe the situations they see around them for political ends.
Patti Smith channelled The Beat poets to whirl together sex, gender, love and society; a heady summation of what she saw to the be the freeing possibilities offered by bohemian New York. Aside from the seminal LP Horses, she’s now known as much for the poetic meter of her memoir Just Kids, or her, poetry readings as her music.
Yet not all great lyrics have the same impact when regarded as poetry. John Cooper Clarke, the ‘Bard Of Salford’ might have the esteem of the literary establishment, but the sprawling, hallucinatory words of his post punk contemporary Mark E Smith have never been given the same regard outside musical circles. With Smith, the snappy delivery and distinctive voice is what makes his words work.
The same goes for Jarvis Cocker. Although the songs of Pulp provided a sex-as-class-war antidote to the boorish “cat/hat” rhymes of Oasis during Britpop, a collection of lyrics published by Faber seemed to lose some of their bite when written down on paper, shorn of that distinctive Sheffield voice.
Indeed, the right vocals can often infuse otherwise unremarkable words with a transcendent profundity. Take Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails Hurt, as featured on his American IV album. Here, Cash took a fairly average song about drug addiction and turned it into a quietly violent, moving farewell.
There’s often a view that music has lost its ability to hit hard as it once did, that radicalism is gone, that we’ve seen the best that there’ll ever be in some mythical golden age that wheezed to a halt at some point in the mid-70s.
This is, of course, nonsense. As Dylan said of Leonard Cohen recently, “His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres”. These are not the only two poets of rock & roll who will continue to tap in to what Orpheus began.
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