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Sightings from the Porch 

January 31, 2018

The Words of a Mere Song

When Bob Dylan was named the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, I watched with bemusement at the uproar that followed. As one New York Times article put it, “the literary commentariat wrestled with a fundamental question: Can song lyrics be literature? For some, the thought carried an unkind implication: Does something from the galaxy of pop music belong anywhere near the almighty pantheon of Great Lit?”

Having been a passionate student of literature and a music aficionado for most of my life, my sensibilities were unaffected by the uproar. Among other reasons for my lack of concern, in my world art is not a competition for prizes (not that I couldn’t use the 8 million Swedish krona, but that’s a different matter). Only a single comment caused me to audibly harrumph. One social media baron, a fellow who lists his occupation as “epic poet,” expressed his outrage that the prize was awarded to a “mere songwriter.” I didn’t bother to engage him on the matter, but Mr Epic Poet would have undoubtedly been aghast at my plebeian take on the topic.

Here’s a simple thought: in my experience there are song lyrics whose effective use of poetics move me. In Winter Sun, I wrote about one such example using the song “Countin’ on a Miracle” by Bruce Springsteen as the subject (“Ode to a Winter Miracle“). A full seven years after the event described in the book, I revisited the lyrics to the song. What I found was a poetic core, and I read that core into a microphone. I made no changes other than to drop the chorus and repetitions.

Does this prove anything with regard to the larger argument? No, nor was that my intention. It’s simply a sharing of one of my experiences with the lyrics of a mere songwriter.