Dylan Composes His Way into Literary Discussions Like a Rolling Stone

One of my first lessons in AP or any senior level literature class revolves around the question of what exactly constitutes literature. Because I wanted to change things up this year, I have not done this lesson and am glad because now I am going to teach Bob Dylan.

Question 3 calls for students to answer a prompt using a novel or play that is a work of “literary merit.” Each year students ask if they can write on Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, or The Cat in the Hat for the exam; (surprisingly none of my students have written on the latter to date). While I could direct students to a list of what I believe to be appropriate criteria for literary merit, I prefer to let students wrestle with the difficulty of literary merit before I offer my thoughts.

My lesson typically begins by asking students to write down works they consider to have literary merit and a defense for their choices. Students will answer with choices such as The Scarlet Letter, any Shakespeare play, or possibly Langston Hughes poems since our students have just completed American literature in 11th grade; students discuss how these works have stood the test of time and have universal themes and appeal. This is a great start to our conversation, but I  press students to consider the difference between Harry Potter and the Twilight series and what makes The Red Wheelbarrow a poem. Questions I ask them to consider include:

What is poetry?

What is literature?

Who decides?

Where are the lines drawn?

Students then make a list of what constitutes literary merit, and we compare it to this list referenced by College Board.



Once again, this leads to a good discussion as we try to think of specific examples and determine whether these works are a work of literary merit. I love hearing my students debate choices, expand their thinking on this subject, and even challenge me on choices.

But this year –

Enter Bob Dylan on the stage in Room 128. 


How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind                                                                                                                                                          Blowin’ in the Wind  (1962)

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.                                                                                                                                                         Times are A-Changin’ (1963)

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.                                                                                                                          Chimes of Freedom (1963)

Your sister sees the future
Like your mama and yourself
You’ve never learned to read or write
There’s no books upon your shelf
And your pleasure knows no limits
Your voice is like a meadowlark
But your heart is like an ocean
Mysterious and dark.                                                                                                                                                                                One More Cup of Coffee (1976)

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” not only were students in English classes forced to consider what constitutes literary merit, but people across the world began having these conversations. I am a little surprised that there is some backlash with this decision since poetry has its roots in song and oral tradition, but I’m not surprised because breaking with tradition is always hard.

I think this year when I have the literary merit conversation we will start with Bob Dylan lyrics asking the same questions then transition to more traditional texts. Comparing the iconic lyrics of Dylan to more “traditional” poems should prove to be both engaging and interesting. Times are definitely a-changin’ in the literary world, and I personally like the direction this fresh wind is blowin’.

“The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 – Press Release”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 22 Oct 2016. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/press.html>

“The Official Bob Dylan Site.” The Official Bob Dylan Site. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Image – Creative Commons

One thought on “Dylan Composes His Way into Literary Discussions Like a Rolling Stone

  1. Wow, what a thought-provoking activity for the students. I think kids usually exposed to literature in a historical context, it’d be nice to see them recognize more modern themes and sources. Will try this with my kids.

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