Classic rock music lovers who think they don’t like poetry, and literary purists who think they don’t like popular music, may have been equally baffled to hear that Bob Dylan is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As an unrepentant English major, I’m delighted.
I can’t remember a time when Dylan’s music wasn’t a part of my growing up, from the rebelliousness of the anti-Vietnam era to the bittersweet maturity of “Tangled Up in Blue“, my all-time favorite.
When you think about it, any time you listen to a song — a current popular hit, a 1950’s oldie, or a centuries-old ballad like “Greensleeves” — you’re listening to poetry, only with a tune. In ancient times, before most could read or write, people turned stories into poetry and sang them because rhyme and melody made the stories easier to remember and retell. Much of rap music is poetry (often crude, but still poetry) with complex use of rhyme and assonance, and the musical element reduced to a backdrop of pounding rhythm.
Poetry set to music can convey any and all human emotion. Love, of course. Jealousy — absolutely. Just pick a musical genre, and there’s a hit song about jealousy. In pop music, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” lets her revel in her psycho side. In country music, Carrie Underwood graphically explains in “Before He Cheats” what can happen when a woman wants revenge on her faithless lover, and takes it out on his car. And the still-creepy “Every Breath You Take“, the 1983 classic rock hit by The Police, blurs the fine line between devotion and obsession.
Then there’s the universal human experience of grief. There was a time when every parent expected to lose a child, or more than one, because children often died from pestilence and poor sanitation. When my daughter Alexandra died unexpectedly at the age of five months, I couldn’t decide which was worse — thinking that I wouldn’t survive, or being horribly afraid that I would.