Two recent events have highlighted the fact that some of the best English-language poetry of the past 50 years has been written by poets who were also musicians. Selection of Bob Dylan to receive the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature took many people by surprise, and generated a lot of both criticism and praise in the literature world.
A writer for the New York Times Review of Books chose an excerpt from the song Mr. Tamborine Man to demonstrate Dylan’s poetic prowess:
Though you might hear laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone
It’s just escaping on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facing
And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time
It’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.
The Nobel was not the first literary award Dylan (who changed his last name to honor Dylan Thomas) has received. Dylan’s online bio at The Poetry Foundation notes that:
In 2008 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical composition of extraordinary poetic power.”
The recent passing of Leonard Cohen affords an opportunity to pay tribute to another of the finest contemporary English-language poet-musicians. Though far less well-known than Dylan, Cohen’s writing made him a giant among his peers, many of whom covered Cohen songs over the years. Rolling Stone writes:
Cohen was the dark eminence among a small pantheon of extremely influential singer-songwriters to emerge in the Sixties and early Seventies. Only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence upon his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet.