The Nobel Prize for Literature is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated and respected arts prizes in the calendar year. Previous winners include Harold Pinter, V.S. Naipaul and Toni Morrison – all of whom have gone on to achieve worldwide and commercial success. This year’s prize was awarded to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who – surprisingly – only ever wrote one novel. The Blonde on Blonde singer was awarded the honour over rumoured nominees Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Haruki Murakami.‘Having created new poetic expressions within the American songbook tradition’, Dylan’s surrealist, stream-of-consciousness protest lyrics have been given the Nobel stamp of approval – but what impact does this have on our understanding of this increasingly popular form?
If, like me, you’ve read Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, this win does come as somewhat of a surprise. Tarantula is Dylan’s first and last attempt at published prose; a linguistic experiment that likens itself to a stream-of-consciousness beatnik style influenced by his peers Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Against a backdrop of 60’s American nihilism and hedonism, Tarantula is unintelligible at best and largely primitive in its content. So, to address mass confusion, why has the Prize been awarded to his musical catalogue?
The discussion of music and poetry as overlapping creative expressions is ongoing. Sites such as Rap Genius have allowed listeners and entertainers alike to unpack the words at the core of their favourite hip-hop and rap songs – a genre often popularised as violent, sexist, and unintelligent. MF Doom, Kendrick Lamar, and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA are but a few key individuals for whom the social study of their work suggests their lyrical skill is second to none.
This generational interest in lyricism and talent through Rap Genius and college courses is essentially contemporary academic study, so why has the lyrical form seen less economic success than its cousin, the novel? Simply speaking, poetry is branded unfavourably. The outdated homogenic image of white, male aristocrats not only alienates a generation of readers but renders the skill of writing in verse almost illegitimate. Yes, Dylan’s achievement could have readily could have been given to a novelist or playwright, but awarding a literature prize to music is much more thought provoking. Whether you believe he deserves the prize or not doesn’t matter. By virtue of its nomination, the Swedish Academy is quietly asking us to examine the metamorphosis of poetry.
Poetry moves beyond the page. It is meant to be performed.
Verse has long been a staple in political and social movements. ‘I have a Dream’, ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ all use poetic techniques that have inspired, riled, and enraged sways of people. In our culture of surveillance language is constantly under careful construction to draw out a desired response. Poetry is a matter of honesty in tandem with craft and imagination – it is a lived experience. When we try to summarise these lived experiences in search engine synopses, we lose the oral origin of verse as well as its theatricality. Consequently, we let the poetic form become a relic, born out of marketing laziness and redundant attempts to expand its definition and categorisation. Poetry moves beyond the page. It is meant to be performed.
According to Nielsen Bookscan, rising figures suggest that the poetry publishing industry is growing. It was announced that by the end of 2016 annual sales of poetry are set to pass £10m for the first since records began. The success was suggestively credited to the rise in independent poets of colour. In and amongst the numerous platforms of social media, independent creatives and self-funded writers are gaining commercial attention.
One of the most notable is Canada’s Rupi Kaur. The so called ‘Instapoet’ was discovered through her Instagram account from which her collection Milk and Honey was picked up by Simon and Schuster’s partner Andrew McMeel. The collection went onto sell half a million copies in the USA alone. Its contemporary and commercial value stemmed from Kaur’s decision to discuss feminity, mental health, grief and loss, in which there happens to be a growing market. In allowing her poetry to be accessed in such a visual and illustrative format, her work was able to reach a new audience who can digest the rounded nature of the poetic form.
This is no better example of this multifaceted approach than one of this year’s best-selling albums. Beyonce’s Lemonade applied the intricate lyricism of London-based Somali poet Warsan Shire, London’s first Young Poet Laureate, and used her beautiful narration to effortlessly blend the dynamic vocal content of the album. Beyonce’s visual approach to language illustrates the ways in which one can revamp creative disciplines without diluting its original content. Her self-titled album Beyonce saw the singer sample an excerpt of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists on the track ‘Flawless’. Not only did this result in rising book sales and a highly viewed TEDx Talk, but prompted discussions of contemporary attitudes towards race, gender and feminism
I am quietly confident that we will see not only a boom of young writers and lyricists picking up the pen, but also a simultaneous growth in support offered to young writers.
The attention their work has brought to other ongoing diversity issues is also important. Not only the form but the actual cultural content of literature is changing. Globalisation and immigration has seen the return of the flâneur and, with that, other more introspective styles of writing. More women of colour are not only picking up the pen but are receiving the due credentials. With companies such as Harper Collins introducing a trailblazing BAME orientated traineeship and two Caribbean women winning the Forward Poetry Prize in a row, I am quietly confident that we will see not only a boom of young writers and lyricists picking up the pen, but also a simultaneous growth in support offered to young writers.
Dylan, for all intents and purposes, is a poet. His songwriting ability is genius in its own right, even if this particular accolade could be regarding as somewhat kitsch. I am hopeful that, for young poets latching on to creative writing courses and writing small masterpieces at home, a bright future for the written/experienced word is possible.