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Songwriter Leonard Cohen wins a major international literary prize

June 3, 2011

Leonard Cohen

A few years ago I laughed my, er, head off when I first heard that some of Bob Dylan’s more intemperate fans were lobbying to get him a Nobel Prize. In literature. Today I’m not so amused.

Not after Leonard Cohen won Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Letters yesterday, worth $45,000 — a prize previously given to Margaret Atwood, Günter Grass, Amos Oz and Paul Auster, each of whom is an actual, you know, real writer.

Further dampening my mood: News that Dylan himself has been nominated for the $50,000  Neustadt International Prize for Literature, given out every other year by the University of Oklahoma’s literary journal, World Literature Today.

This is a prize previously given to, you know, real writers, like Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Algerian novelist Assia Djebar and Polish poet Adam Zagajewski.

And apart from Dylan, the 2012 field consists most of real writers the likes of John Banville, Aleksander Hemon, Elena Poniatowska and Rohinton Mistry.

What, you may ask, is so wrong with nominating exceptional songwriting talents like Dylan and Cohen for literary prizes? After all, they undeniably have built up, as the Spanish jury says of Cohen, “a body of literary work that has influenced three generations of people worldwide through his creation of emotional imagery in which poetry and music are fused in an oeuvre of immutable merit.”

Storytime! Louise and the Adventures of a Chicken,  June 11 at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts.

Dylan has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel since 1997 — and not by unqualified nut jobs, either. Here’s a link to the nominating letter written by VMI English professor Gorden Ball. As far as I know, Dylan has never deviated from his 1965 assessment of himself as “a song and dance man,” but he has not discouraged efforts in his behalf, either.

Nor should he. The man’s a genius, no doubt about it, one of the four or five most important cultural figures of the past half century, and certainly more influential than any other writer I can think of. The last scribe to occupy anything like Dylan’s cultural significance was probably Norman Mailer, and that was all over by 1980.

Part of my objection is the traditional argument that no matter how great a wordsmith a songwriter might be, his or her work is fully realized only in performance. By wedding lyric with music, a songwriter creates a hybrid art form that deserves its own place of respect.

But it’s not poetry. It makes different demands on the writer and on the performer. A poet must originate his or her music from the words, grammar, syntax and sentence structure alone. A songwriter must always account for the emotional and aesthetic impact of the external music.

Sure, a poet and a songwriter have similar talents and use similar skills, but ultimately they are as different as a ballet dancer and an NBA star.

I know! Let’s cast Dwyane Wade in Swan Lake and send Ivan Vasiliev out to play two guard for the Heat in Dallas on Sunday, see how that turns out. Both are athletic, disciplined and precise, right?

Of course, some smartypants could deal this line of thinking a blow simply by pointing out that much ancient poetry — The Iliad, for example, the Psalms of David, Sappho and so on — were meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. And I acknowledge that some of Dylan’s verses, and Cohen’s too, can be read on the page.

Nonetheless, Dylan and Cohen are primarily popular performing artists, their lyrics intended to be songs. They have more in common with, say, Woody Guthrie, or Edith Piaf, or Buddy Holly, or Rogers and Hammerstein than with Homer or Shakespeare or Frost or Banville.

I’ve argued elsewhere for the importance of genre distinctions, and essentially that’s the issue here. Bob Dylan is not a poet, just as Derek Walcott is not a songwriter (his Broadway collaboration with Paul Simon, The Capeman, closed after 68 performances).

Why should Cohen and Dylan jump the tracks and take prizes (and prize money) intended for real writers? John Banville can’t win a Grammy for writing a novel, why should Dylan win a Neustadt for writing a bunch of songs — no matter how indisputably great they may be?

Finally giving Dylan, or Cohen, literary awards sets a terrible precedent. The same arguments being made for Dylan could apply to comic book writers and the authors of Hollywood screenplays — hey, they all work with words, right? I demand a Nobel for William Goldman!

The next thing you know all literature, no matter its provenance,  will slurry down a chute to collect in the increasingly noxious cesspool known as popular culture.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Marlon James permalink
    June 3, 2011 1:57 pm

    I’m conflicted about this. On one hand, these men are musicians, not poets. On the other hand both deserve a special distinction for literary merit that one simply cannot give to say Neil Young or Randy Newman. On one hand your point here is dead on: “Part of my objection is the traditional argument that no matter how great a wordsmith a songwriter might be, his or her work is fully realized only in performance. ” but on the other I could use that same sentence to lobby an objection to a playwright.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 3, 2011 4:46 pm

      Yeah — I wondered if someone would raise the playwright exception. To some extent, play writing is grandfathered in, back through Shakespeare to the Greeks. But I think we should look only at contemporary conditions. Playwrights are accepted as authors in a way that, say, screenwriters are not, and that seems right and just to me.

      My main objection, though, is simply that poetry and songwriting, despite their superficial similarities, are entirely different — not only genres, but art forms. To my mind, it does not elevate Dylan to call him a poet. Calling him a songwriter is plenty distinguished enough. He’s master of an art that includes John Lennon, Ira Gerswhin, Cole Porter among its pantheon. practitioners.

  2. June 3, 2011 3:54 pm

    aha!! Back to genre distinctions ( noxious cesspools, later! ) This time no argument – but how does one lobby for genre distinctions in a world where labels (no pun intended) stick forever? And are there enough gold statues to go around?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 3, 2011 4:56 pm

      Emily — don’t get me started on golden statues. If I had my way, all arts awards would be banned, banished, ended. They’re all fraudulent. Marlon Brando and George C. Scott had it right when they declined their Oscars for, respectively, The Godfather and Patton.

      As for genre distinctions, we must cling to them for all we’re worth in the whirlwind of arbitrary change that seems to be the defining characteristic of life in the new millennium.

  3. June 3, 2011 7:51 pm

    I’m glad to see Leonard Cohen honored in such a way! A genius of verse, he’s written some of the most insightful words about our condition as human beings. I was inspired by his song, “Anthem,” to create a portrait of this legendary musician. You can read a little about Mr. Cohen and the process of creating this work of art on my artist’s blog at

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 4, 2011 9:49 am

      A genius, no doubt, I couldn’t agree more. But not a literary genius.

  4. Gabriele Stehle permalink
    June 4, 2011 8:54 am

    I don’t get what the problem seems to be. From CBC entertainment news:

    “Montreal-born Cohen is known for his songs, including Suzanne and Hallelujah, which have been covered by dozens of influential artists.

    His books include poetry collections Let us Compare Mythologies and Flowers for Hitler, and novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers. Earlier this year he issued a compilation book Poems and Stories.” – End of quote

    Doesn’t look like the purity of rewarding literary achievements is in danger after all.

    “Considered one of the most influential authors of our time, his poems and songs have beautifully explored the major issues of humanity in great depth,” the jury said in its citation. – End of quote

    Looks like they really thought about it, doesn’t it?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 4, 2011 9:50 am

      Who considers him “one of the most influential authors of our time?” Only the jury of this prize and certain Cohen partisans. I assure you, without the songs he would not be getting this or any other prize.

  5. Gabriele Stehle permalink
    June 4, 2011 8:58 am

    I would have been okay with the prize being solely about his songs, btw. The man’s a poet and has written amazing lyrics. Don’t care that much for his music, personally, but the lyrics… beautiful literature, master of metaphor and minimal story telling.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 4, 2011 9:52 am

      When the man writes songs, which is why anyone has ever heard of him, he is not a poet, he is a songwriter. Poetry and songwriting are not the same thing, and saying they are does not elevate the songwriter and his craft, it diminishes him.

  6. June 4, 2011 11:12 am

    Interesting debate. I have say I’m with Gabriele. As a writer, I find Cohen’s lyrics and poetry deeply inspiring. Perhaps they could have given Cohen the award under the ‘Arts’ category, I don’t know. It does seem to be an award sometimes given to unusual people – in fact, according to Wikipedia, in 1991 the literature award was given to “the people of Puerto Rico”.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 4, 2011 1:52 pm

      No disrespect to Puerto Rico, but that’s just silly.

  7. Howard Scott permalink
    June 5, 2011 12:03 am

    I am perplexed by this argument. You seem to be saying that a poet who becomes successful as a songwriter therefore ceases to be a poet! What a bizarre notion.

    Someone posted this link on Facebook, so I don’t know who you are and what qualifies you to decide who is a poet and who is not, but when you say things like ” Dylan and Cohen are primarily popular performing artists” and “part of my objection is the traditional argument that no matter how great a wordsmith a songwriter might be, his or her work is fully realized only in performance,” it suggests to me that you are simply not familiar with his work, other than his songs.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 5, 2011 2:51 pm

      I don’t understand why you have such a low opinion of the art and craft of songwriting. Why is it that songwriter who has reached a high level of achievement, whose work has moved you, must be accorded the title poet? Calling Cohen or Dylan a songwriter is no disrespect — on the contrary. Songwriting is more than putting music to poetry, and poetry is more than song lyrics without music. Good grief. How many different ways do I have to explain this?

      • Howard Scott permalink
        June 5, 2011 7:27 pm

        Calling Cohen is a songwriter is no disrespect, but saying he is not a “real writer” because he is also successful as a songwriter certainly is. Shakespeare wrote some good songs too. So I guess he wasn’t a “real writer.”

  8. Thierry permalink
    June 5, 2011 8:05 am

    Is it possible that the Spanish jury mistook him for Albert Cohen ?

  9. Lynn Demarest permalink
    June 5, 2011 12:26 pm

    A modern-day poet who wants his work to reach the most ears (and who prefers not to starve) becomes a songwriter, unless he lacks the knack.

    Much of Dylan’s and Cohen’s work is poetry thinly disguised as song, the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. They’re ninety percent poetry, ten-percent music.

    The songs largely are simplistic and repetitious — a hallmark of folk music meant to be played by amateur musicians — and the singing (with rare exception in Dylan’s case) is poor. Dylan can carry a tune, but most often chooses simply not to, as if to further minimize the importance of the song. Cohen just moans and growls. In both cases, the song is a sideline.

    Dylan’s comment about being a “song and dance man” was delightfully self-effacing, but he knew even then that it was wrong, as you can tell by his smirk. He wisely didn’t want the weight that comes with being something more than a folk singer in the tradition of Woody Guthrie.

    Finally, the artist able to express himself in various forms, I think, is impressive in a way not unlike an athlete who excels in multiple sports.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 5, 2011 2:58 pm

    A poet who becomes a songwriter is no longer a poet. He’s a songwriter. Nothing wrong with that, songwriting is an admirable art form. Oh, and by the way, name some athletes who excel at the highest professional levels in multiple sports. I can think of not a single one. Most are far better at one than the other. Even Deion Sanders, the best two-sport athlete I know of, was at best a good MLB player, but a superstar in the NFL. Not even the great Michael Jordan could make the transition from one sport to another.

    • Howard Scott permalink
      June 5, 2011 7:32 pm

      “A poet who becomes a songwriter is no longer a poet. ”
      That makes no sense whatsoever. Many artists work in various forms. Success in one form does not erase your achievements in another.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        June 6, 2011 10:14 am

        I am guilty of oversimplifying my case. A poet who becomes a songwriter is not a poet when he is writing a song. And if he becomes primarily famous for songwriting and performing, then he is no longer primarily and poet and ought not be give major literary awards for his work as a songwriter. But of course anyone is free to undertake as many artistic endeavors as time, energy and motivation allow.

  11. Howard Scott permalink
    June 6, 2011 10:39 am

    Okay, that’s clearer: for you, it’s what you’re famous for that counts, not what you write. I, however, think literary awards should be given on the basis of literary merit.

    • Frances Shigley permalink
      June 6, 2011 11:09 am

      Did you know that in the UK literary works have been protected by copyright law from unauthorised reproduction since at least 1710.[1] Literary works are defined by copyright law to mean any work, other than a dramatic or musical work, which is written, spoken or sung, and accordingly includes (a) a table or compilation (other than a database), (b) a computer program, (c) preparatory design material for a computer program, and (d) a database.

      It should be noted that literary works are not limited to works of literature, but include all works expressed in print or writing (other than dramatic or musical works).

      To be perfectly honest, that was recited from my knowledge and not Wikipedia (if you searched ‘literature’). I hope this adds fuel to your … vehicle of debate.

  12. June 6, 2011 4:29 pm

    Am I the only one old enough to know that Leonard Cohen was a published poet before he turned those poems into songs – and the author of two fine novels too? That his poetry and prose (not his music) was a major influence on Margaret Atwood and others whom, I imagine, Chauncey (if I may) would regard as proper writers.

  13. Kent permalink
    June 9, 2011 10:54 am

    In addition to the Spanish prize, Cohen also recently won the Glenn Gould Arts award. This new interest in Cohen’s work arises from his extraordinarily successful 2009-2010 world tour and the general realization, I think, that no one has ever put words to music in the manner he has. Is he now a serious contender for the Nobel Literature Prize. More deserving I’d say than some of the recent recipients.

  14. erasto ahoto permalink
    March 12, 2016 9:25 am

    to say that a person shouldn’t be entitled to have their skills honored because they have been honored already in another forum is rediculous.
    that’s like saying bo jackson shouldn’t get to play baseball because he’s already been honored for his football skills. also to dogmatically state that songwriting is not poetry because it requires music or performance, or that it was conceived that way so therefore is only realized as lyric and music is also without merit.
    inspiration comes in many forms sometimes with melody but often in the death of silence

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