The Song of a Poet: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and the Boundaries of Literature.

14th November 2016 ¦ Aran Ward Sell.

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in

These lines have been quoted reverently since Leonard Cohen’s death. The maudlin yet shimmering sentiment is powerfully poetic, and no less so for being sung. Cohen’s ancient, weighty timbre does not dilute his words; it fuels them. He enters a long tradition of revered bards, from Homer to Burns, whose poetry has been performed or sung. No-one argues that because Shakespeare’s plays are performed, they do not qualify as Literature. And yet, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2016, an equivalent objection was raised against his songwriting.

The announcement caused no wailing and gnashing of teeth. The malcontents amongst the literati are too restrained for that. Instead, there was a curmudgeonly mutter; a gentle background drone of grinding molars as writers and scholars grumbled onto Twitter and into review supplements to opine that this sort of thing simply isn’t on.

“Have they inducted Don De Lillo into the Rock n Roll hall of fame alongside Def Leppard and Slayer yet?” snarked Irvine Welsh. “How American,” wrote Porochista Khakpour, “a Literature Laureate you didn’t even have to read.” Even the sainted Margaret Atwood had a snook to cock: told of Dylan’s award, she asked pointedly: “For what?” Bluntest of all was Ruskin Bond: “I am not sure whether he was given the award in the right category,” he said, calling it a “great insult to all the writers who have already received the award.”


Others celebrated Dylan’s award, and some even dared to be reasonable on the internet; “I understand the scepticism and the enthusiasm,” wrote Darran Anderson. There were objections on grounds of diversity: Natalie Kon-yu wrote that Dylan was “another white, distinguished male” triumphing “over more qualified women”. These are more reasoned responses than the categorical objections above.

It really doesn’t matter where the Nobel committee scatter their shiny gongs. If they wish to play gatekeeper to an elitist definition of “Literature,” that is their prerogative. What does matter is that Literature is not confined to the husks of dead trees. Art forms shift and grow. They respond to the tides of modernity and, dialectically, influence those tides. Books, we forget, are a technology. A venerable one, but without innate superiority to magnetic tape or mp3.

Walter Benjamin broke from many 1930s contemporaries by arguing optimistically for “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Benjamin focused upon film, but his claims that “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses”, allowing a “progressive”, critical public consciousness (XII), also applies to poetry in the age of recorded sound. Lyricists’ work, powered by guitars, synthesizers, samples and drums, now bursts from bedroom speakers and truckers’ radios. Poetry – often terrible, sometimes excellent – rides airwaves to reach minds which iambic pentameter never dared approach. Without recorded sound, we’d never have had the opportunity to forget about Dre.

Since the mass popularisation of vinyl, the lyric – which once meant a genre of written verse – has voyaged far beyond the chapbook. Hip-hop, especially, has made global superstars of poets. How many young people, turned off “poetry” by stultifying English classes, have been excited into writing by Eminem in 8 Mile furiously scribbling lines in the back of a bus?

“Poetry” doesn’t denote genius. You’re entitled to scoff at the poetry of contemporary lyricists. But then, you’re entitled to scoff at William McGonagall, the alleged “worst poet in history”. Poetry is certainly a literary form (did anyone protest W. B. Yeats’ Nobel, or Seamus Heaney’s, on categorical grounds?), and lyricists are certainly poets. Many are even quite good. Consider Leonard Cohen, of whom Dorian Lynksey touchingly writes, “the man knew things about life and, if you listened closely, you might learn something”. Consider David Bowie and Marilyn Manson, who wove verse with music, costume, film and persona into multi-limbed performance artworks. Consider John Cooper Clark’s beat poetry or Emily XYZ’s punk poems for two voices, superimposed onto juddering backbeats. Consider the rhythmic dexterity of Akala (the blithely self-identified “Black Shakespeare”). Dylan wrote – and sang – that he “heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter”. Perhaps Dylan’s detractors feel that the poet he saw deserved their lowly station, if all they had was song.

Bob Dylan may or may not deserve a Nobel Prize for Literature. His poems, though – like Kate Tempest’s or Kendrick Lamar’s, like T. S. Eliot’s or Sappho’s – deserve recognition and evaluation as such whether he chooses to publish them, to chisel them into tablets, or to scream them at the sky.

About Aran

Aran is a first-year PhD candidate, studying legacies of Modernism in the contemporary British and Irish novel. He writes and vlogs on, and in 2016 he co-produced the contemporary dance show Entrails for the Edinburgh Fringe. You can follow him on Twitter @AranWS, or in real life if you’re really sneaky.

Edited by Michelle Mackie, Scheherazade Khan, and Matthew Tibble.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. 1936. Trans: Harry Zohn. Web:

Bob Dylan image by Leahtwosaints on Flickr. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic license. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Eminem writing image by fuckyeaheminem on Tumblr, reproduced under Fair Usage.

2 responses to “The Song of a Poet: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and the Boundaries of Literature.

  1. Pingback: New article: “The Song of a Poet: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and the Boundaries of Literature” – Reasons to Remain·

  2. Art forms shift and grow, and in this case Mr. Dylan is largely responsible for that change. And he introduced poetry to millions. By the way, I’m a mutterer.


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