Nora Ephron once asked Bob Dylan whether he considered himself a poet, by which she meant if he thought his words could "stand without the music." Dylan responded, "They would stand, but I don't read them. I'd rather sing them."
Clearly, he's not alone: On Thursday, we learned that Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." In other words, Dylan won for being a poet who happens to sing.
It's about time. Joining the ranks of William Butler Yeats (1923), T. S. Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), Gabriel Garca Mrquez (1982) and Toni Morrison (1993), the last American winner, the award establishes that Dylan is a writer first and a rock star second. That his words, as Dylan once said himself, stand alone: "It ain't the melodies that are important, man, it's the words."
In recognizing Dylan, the Nobel committee no doubt meant to honor those words, but also to stir things up, to unsettle the literary establishment by inviting a pop star to crash their party; perhaps, also, to send a not-so-subtle rebuke to a generation of American authors it deems unfit for the honor.
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As much as the Swedish Academy might feel as if it is shaking things up, though, conferring the award on Dylan is actually a fairly safe move. After all, his lyrics stand up well on the page; they comport themselves as poems.
Witness the collection of lyrics edited by literary critic Christopher Ricks in 2014, presenting Dylan's words as if they were torn from Wordsworth and Coleridge's "Lyrical Ballads." Recall that in that same year, Dylan's handwritten draft of "Like a Rolling Stone" sold for more than $2 million. His literary cred was already established.
As a poet, Dylan's art is most apparent in the studied imperfection of his rhymes. There's something unsettling but appealing in the lack of rhyme resolution in this couplet from "Thunder on the Mountain": "I'm gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches / I'll recruit my army from the orphanages."
The real question is this: How far are we willing now to open the door to consider the literary merit of others' song lyrics? In the years to come, might the Nobel committee consider the work of Nas or Kendrick Lamar? Joni Mitchell or Taylor Swift? Will Dylan's award prove an exception, or will it establish new rules?
Popular song lyrics are the pulse of contemporary poetry — provided we do not restrict them to the written word alone. "Of all the nonsense that has been written about the poetry of Neil Young, Paul Simon, or even Bob Dylan," Greil Marcus writes in "Mystery Train," "no one has ever said anything about Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing.'” Hendrix's poetic appeal best expresses itself in recorded sound, in the grain of Hendrix's voice.
In 2013, former NPR critic Bill Wyman made the case for Dylan to receive the Nobel. "His lyricism is exquisite," Wyman wrote. "His concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence."
The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards sees it differently. “Art is the last thing I'm worried about when I'm writing a song,” Richards once said. “I don't think it really matters. If you want to call it art, yeah, OK, you can call it what you like. As far as I'm concerned, 'Art' is just short for 'Arthur.' "
Richards is onto something. Some of the reasons a song lyric works well as a poem are the same reasons that it works well in a recorded song: lyric concision, perhaps, but also occasional superfluity; imagistic beauty, but also an artful ugliness.
Let's hope this recognition of Dylan's work will inspire us to hear song lyrics — Dylan's and others' — anew: as both a musical and literary form.
Adam Bradley is a professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches the course, "The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.” He is the author of the forthcoming, "The Poetry of Pop." He wrote this commentary for The Washington Post.