Dylan’s Nobel prize win sparked a debate about lyrics as literature. Here, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy, Johnny Marr, Naomi Alderman and others nominate songwriters whose verse has the power of poetry
Dylan’s Nobel laureateship has proved controversial – which was presumably a part of the reason for awarding it to him in the first place. To shake things up a bit. But as a counterweight to those who think he shouldn’t have got the prize under any circumstances, and those who think the lyrics to the songs depend on their melody and delivery, which disqualify them from such an award, there are plenty of admirers, and plenty of ways to argue, that his words alone are certain good. The great protestations (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), the great love-murmurs (“Love Minus Zero”) and love-twists (“Tangled Up in Blue”), the great surrealist masterpieces of the Blonde on Blonde era (“Visions of Johanna”): all these contain the qualities we look for in poetry that matters. Concentration of language, formal expertise of one kind or another, and a clever balancing of articulacy and mystery. The same goes for his great ballads, which I love as much as any of these songs just named, and none more than his Baltimorean tragedy, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”. Here Dylan gives his account of the murder committed by William Zanzinger, of the criminally light sentence he received, and of “high office relations in the politics of Maryland”, in four headlong and largely unpunctuated verses. Everything about them is alert to the literary tradition in which they work, but everything stretches and extends that tradition, walking a fine line between lyric and narrative to catch the essence of both, and tumbling through rage into sorrow at its conclusion, without diminishing either: “Oh but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears / Bury the rag deep in your face / For now’s the time for your tears.”
I’m envious of and thrilled by just one line from Little Richard – A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom
Lou Reed turned slang into poetry, using modern language to tell his stories of the city
O'Hara builds songs out of spare phrases that light each other as the parts of a poem shouldContinue reading...