This week's announcement that Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature prompted passionate responses from working poets -- some positive and some negative:
While some poems can be songs, and poems can be read, spoken, chanted, recited, or sung, the Nobel Committee for Literature presented Bob Dylan with their 2016 award for "creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Although it seems clear from this official citation that the committee is recognizing Dylan as a songwriter, it's fair for working poets to wonder whether this is in fact the case, as Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, describes Dylan as a "great poet in the English tradition... a great sound poet..."
Few would argue with the notion that Dylan is an icon who has made a lasting impression on the many readers of his lyrics and other writing, and his listeners--perhaps especially on the generation that grew up with his music. But not all poets and critics view Dylan's primary cultural contribution to be one to American poetry. That shouldn't be controversial considering Dylan himself once said, "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem. Anything I can't sing or anything that's too long to be a poem, I call a novel." He troubled the waters between genres, but he clearly understood the difference between them, and that his work spanned several.
Why celebrate the "American song tradition" now? Is songwriting literature? Is Dylan a poet as well as musician? Here are a few articles to consider:
In some senses, the Nobel committee's presentation of its Literature award to Dylan is about more than Dylan. If the committee, which has awarded prizes since 1901, is expanding how it defines literature and poetry, that has possible cultural implications and/or consequences. The decisions venerable institutions in a field make can influence other institutions and organizations, formal and informal. To the positive, perhaps the committee's decision might signal a greater appreciation for literature's oral tradition, and even inspire a similar embrace of spoken word, slam, and hip hop, which have too long been marginalized by literary institutions. Literature and poetry exist in culture in multiple modes. To the possibly challenging, perhaps it could inspire other grantmaking organizations that have historically assisted individuals who focus on a particular literary genre to focus on artists who work across multiple disciplines.
It's understandable that working poets might have strong feelings about the possibility of there being even fewer opportunities for poets than there are already.
Much of poetry exists within the gift economy. And while today we arguably have more poets publishing and sharing their work than ever before, very few poets are able to support themselves financially with book sales and royalties. Prizes and awards, in addition to validation, provide visibility that helps increase books sales.
Weaving together a livelihood comprised of adjunct teaching jobs, fellowships, readings and performances that provide honorariums, residencies, and grants, is extremely challenging for poets. Most poets have to have lifelong jobs outside of poetry to sustain themselves and their artistic practice.
Poets pay attention to signals. It's always legitimate for them to ask questions about institutional actions that might impact the community of working poets, and how the public views and understands poetry.