Friday, November 25, 2016

Literary prizes for songwriters?

A few weeks ago I mentioned folksinger Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in connection with Paul Simon's denial that he himself is a poet. I didn't get into the question of whether literary prizes should be given to songwriters. Let's do that now.

A fellow LibraryThing member argued in a discussion group that Dylan's "not a literary figure, he's a songwriter and there are plenty of venues that celebrate excellence in music." That is a good point. Is there a hall of fame for poetry the way there is for rock and roll music and country music? Are the National Book Awards televised the way the Grammys and other music award presentations are? And are there as many categories so that one writer can win multiple awards and many writers can win at least one? (Of course, because there are so many categories of Grammy Awards, poets and other literary figures have sometimes won them. Grammy winners have included Maya Angelou, James Dickey, Carl Sandburg and Rod McKuen.)

Yet just because a poem is set to music does not mean that it is no longer a poem. There was a time when virtually every literate person read poetry. Today relatively few people do, but they do listen to it. And so most of our poets, like those who wrote the psalms in biblical times, set their poetry to music. I argued in my Nov. 2 post that Paul Simon is a poet. I could make a similar case for Leonard Cohen, who died recently, Dar Williams and many other singer-songwriters.

The quality of the poetry should not be judged on the basis of the music or the voice of the singer or the writer's celebrity. If you are going to give literary prizes to songwriters, it had better be because the words themselves and the strength of their imagery make them deserving. It would not do to start handing out literary prizes to celebrities in the music world at the expense of those who write quality books and poems in relative obscurity. But an occasional Nobel Prize for a Bob Dylan? I have no problem with that.

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