Is Dylan's Nobel for him or for us?

Nobel at Noon lunch and learn highlights decades-long debate, questions purpose of prestigious award

December 8, 2016

Are Bob Dylan’s lyrics poetry? The debate has been going on for decades, but you probably shouldn’t bother asking him.

Illustration of Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize has reignited a debate about whether his lyrics are poetry since the he became famous in the early 1960s.

Dylan, who recently became the first musician to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, has been asked that since the Sixties. From the start he has been evading the question, much to the chagrin of journalists on the receiving end of some of Dylan’s notoriously hostile interviews.

Don’t ask Professor Sam McGuire, MS, either, although he’s much more affable when asked. McGuire, an associate dean at the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Arts & Media, acknowledged at his recent lunch and learn about Dylan’s career that he couldn’t resolve the debate.

Whether Dylan’s songs count as poetry and should be analyzed for deeper meanings and messages has been a controversy since his first albums in the early 1960s, McGuire said.

Instead of taking sides, McGuire showed how the debate has evolved. He used examples of Dylan’s lyrics, recordings of his music and videos to lay out the controversy. Quotes from journalists in the ’60s also showed the opposing views.

McGuire played “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an example. The song is packed with metaphors and similes, and it speaks to a desire for peace during the height of the Cold War. In all, it made for a classic song that has had a long-lasting cultural impact.

“There are some really potent images, and we’ve heard this so many times, it’s become part of the way that we communicate and talk,” McGuire said.

“Good lyrics out of terrible poetry”

But while the lyrics like that are beloved by many, including quite a few teachers introducing students to poetry, many critics have torn into Dylan. McGuire cited a review by Ellen Willis, a prominent music critic in the Sixties, who praised Dylan’s “lavish verbal imagination and brilliant sense of irony,” but slammed his “tangled phrases, silly metaphors, embarrassing clichés [and] muddled thought.”

College of Arts & Media Professor Sam McGuire leads a discussion about Bob Dylan’s lyrics and Nobel Prize for Literature

“His skill at creating character has made good lyrics out of terrible poetry,” Willis wrote.

The debate about Dylan’s poetic skills and whether he should have won literature’s highest honor goes on, even with students.

“Adding music is cheating,” one student said, noting that poets must evoke music with words, and that the mediums are too different.

Another agreed that Dylan isn’t a poet, but took a different angle. The Nobel Prize is for literature, not poetry, and dramatists and novels regularly win the award. Songs could be considered another variety of literature, the student said.

An award more important to us

Regardless, there’s still decades of music, much of it great, some not. Dylan’s songs have had an enormous impact on people and culture, and McGuire suggested maybe that transcends the often tiresome debate.

“Is this an award for Bob, or something we needed to understand his work?” McGuire asked. “We give people awards, sometimes for them, but often so that we can say we understand what he did and that it’s important to us.”

Dylan remains a touring musician, and performing, not an award he doesn’t seem to want and won’t collect in person, looks to be what’s most important to him.

“He’s happiest being on the stage every night,” McGuire said. “This kind of award is clearly not for him, it’s for the people who picked the award and for us to help us understand how he fits in our own individual lives.”