Thursday, January 21, 2010

Song lyrics as poetry

At his peak in the mid to late 1970s (only my opinion, of course) Paul Simon wrote some pretty amazing songs. I have no idea what corner of his multi-level brain they came from. Not all of the songs on his albums became super popular, of course, but the lyrics to even some of those were very imaginative, and I liked them a lot. A really lot of them DID become hits, happily. Where do things like the following come from?

"One man's ceiling is another man's floor."

"A mean individual stranded in a black limousine."

"... but there's no tenderness beneath your honesty."

"Shining like a National guitar."

Paul Simon was asked on a talk show if he thought his lyrics would stand alone as poetry. He said no. He was wrong. If you don't believe me, read "Hearts and Bones" sometime. Or "Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War" (on Negotiations and Love Songs.)

Or read this one:

Couple in the next room, bound to win a prize;
They've been going at it all night long.
I'm trying to get some sleep, but these motel walls are cheap,
Lincoln Duncan is my name and here's my song, here's my song.

My father was a fisherman, my mama was a fisherman's friend
And I was born in the boredom of the chowder.
So when I reached my prime, I left my home in the Maritimes
And headed down the turnpike to New England, sweet New England.

Holes in my confidence, holes in the knees of my jeans;
I was left without a penny in my pocket.
Oooo-wee, I was 'bout as destituded as a kid could be
And I wished I'd wore a ring so I could hock it, I'd like to hock it.

Seen a young girl in a parking lot, preaching to a crowd,
Singing sacred songs and reading from the Bible.
Well I told her I was lost and she told me about the Pentecost.
Seen that girl as the road to my survival.

Just later on the very same night, I crept to her tent with a flashlight
And my long years of innocence ended.
She took me to the woods, saying "Here comes something and it feels so good"
And just like a dog I was befriended, I was befriended.

Oh, what a night! - Oh, what a garden of delight!
Even now that sweet memory lingers.
I was playing my guitar and lying underneath the stars,
Just thanking the Lord for my fingers, for my fingers.

Well, I had to think a little bit about that double entendre; the need for fingers to make sounds of happiness on his guitar and the need for fingers to experience the sensation of touch. The following never fails to draw me back through the mists of time whenever I hear it:

"I met my old lover
On the street last night.
She seemed so glad to see me;
I just smiled.
And we talked about some old times
And we drank ourselves some beers.
Still crazy after all these years
Oh, still crazy after all these years.

I found out just today that there is indeed a book of Paul Simon's "poetry" out there. I think I will buy it.


  1. I've thought a number of lyricists wrote effective poetry, though,since I'm a rhyme and rhythm gal, I think of ABBA and Sting.

    But that's just a preference regarding poetry. The principle is the same.

  2. A winter's day
    In a deep and dark December;
    I am alone,
    Gazing from my window to the streets below
    On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
    I am a rock,
    I am an island.

    I've built walls,
    A fortress deep and mighty,
    That none may penetrate.
    I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
    It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
    I am a rock,
    I am an island.

    Don't talk of love,
    But I've heard the words before;
    It's sleeping in my memory.
    I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
    If I never loved I never would have cried.
    I am a rock,
    I am an island.

    I have my books
    And my poetry to protect me;
    I am shielded in my armor,
    Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
    I touch no one and no one touches me.
    I am a rock,
    I am an island.

    And a rock feels no pain;
    And an island never cries.

    Absolutely a poem. Like many, I was intoduced to Simon and Garfunkel with the sound-track to "The Graduate", back in 1968.

    There's no doubt in my mind that that movie would not have been so well remembered were it not for those underpinning songs, benjamin in his room,being a rock, being an island, and Mrs Robinson, and Elaine, breaking through his walls, his defences, his cocoon.

    So much more of what Paul Simon wrote is deeply evocative, painting pictures, evoking mood, I'll give him top marks, as a lyricist, only 80% as a poet.

    The constraints of poetry and those of music differ.
    I think that to take a great song and turn it into a great poem requires a lot of paring. songs thrive on filling, whereas poems are best when they're lean, mean, carved down to essentials.

  3. One of the best lyricists ever. And Graceland is one of my favorite albums ever (no longer albums, alas, but you know what I mean).

  4. @Stephanie B - I agree. Which ones do you like? I put an ABBA in this weeks playlist. (On Clarity), but hardly poetry, that one.

    Well, like what ABBA lyrics do you think is poetic? Gimme Gimme Gimme (a man after midnight)? :)

    I guess maybe "I Have a Dream" or "One of Us". Not bad.

  5. @Soubriquet - Good one. Did you know Joe Dimaggio got upset over the Mrs. Robinson reference? He thought they were saying he had died.

    What's the different thing with straight poetry? To show my ignorance.

    So, are you saying it's a poem if it has an allegorical meaning? And lyrics just have to be clever? I just like some of them, but don't know the rules.

  6. @Lidian - You liked Graceland? I think A. said she liked that one too. I have it on cd but I was disappointed. I mean, I like a few, but it rambles from song to song. Kodachrome (There Goes Rhymin' Simon) is my all time favorite album I think. I have found listening to them years later, I appreciate some better that I didn't like before. Like "Take Me to the Mardi Gras".


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