The award of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to songwriter and troubadour Bob Dylan has sparked a vigorous online debate over “high art” versus “low art,” and whether song lyrics can now be termed as literature.Here’s what a couple of Bowdoin’s English faculty had to say on the matter.
The Nobel committee cites Dylan for having created “new poetic expressions within great the American song tradition.” This is certainly true. The award also invites us to expand the definition of “literature” in compelling ways.
I also think that Dylan’s focus on subaltern voices of the poor, the immigrant, and on racial minorities aligns him with certain Nobel winners of the past, including Octavio Paz, Toni Morrison, and John Steinbeck.
I think it’s a great choice, especially as it opens the category of literature to the arena of non traditional forms. I am teaching the Intro to Poetry course this semester, where we learn traditional forms (sonnet, villanelle, etc) before moving into free verse. When I teach the ballad, I use Dylan (among others).
I like to think he would say, “Fifty years of crooning and they put you on the prize list.”