I heard that “’Neath” in “The Sounds of Silence” back in the Sixties, and I realized that elf guy Simon was up to something in the neighborhood of poetry, the neighborhood where good walls mattered and lilacs by the dooryard bloomed, Nobodies fessed up and neither farmers nor horses cared about Hubris Icarus falling. You don’t say “’neath” without you have some secret designs on your auditors. Like I say, poetry.
That vinyl’s title song was about some hipster who had a dream vision, and he was trying to sound the alarm about zombies, despite the widespread practices of ennui and silence. Not the kind of zombies that slink about and aim to feast on brains, but the kind that wanted to numb your brain, doze you. Zombies that talk without speaking and hear without listening. Dulling zombies, Xanax zombies. That song was a pretty obvious warning, and I raised my private terror alert level to woodpecker red.
I zoomed in on “The Dangling Conversation” on that same album, and it was more personal with cups of tea and pretty images, but also indifference and superficial sighs. It all rang a bell, but what really got my attention was the poetry business again – “And you read your Emily Dickinson/ And I my Robert Frost/ And we mark out places with bookmarks/ That measure what we’ve lost.”
I had just gotten free of high school, and I had a kind of suspicious respect for poetry, which I understood not at all (despite some pretty fancy bulletin boards) but knew it was not Sunday School or the Friday night lights, sock hops or fist fights behind the gym, not home ec pies nor organic chem. Poetry meant to mean something, and I knew from American lit that Bob and Em and Walt were not normal. Whether on the upside or the downer, who could say? But they meant to mean right and left, east and west, 24/7. Her life was a loaded gun, though she couldn’t stop for Death. Bob liked to traipse off into the woods and bend trees, scare birds, watch spiders (along with Walt) and think of ghosts and strangling marriages.
But what I wanted to know lickety-split was if Elf Simon thought it a waste of time reading Em’s tiny twisty poems and Robert Lee Frost’s Uncle Wiseguy ones with chainsaws, dark and deep woods and apples, snow all over the place. How do those bookmarks “measure what we’ve lost”? Do the markers mean the time spent getting that far along through those poems was just wasted, digging a hole to fill it, or do they mean that the puzzles on the pages hint that time spent doing other, unpoetry things is lost, and reading the books should wake us up? Elf was big on alarms and reveilles. Just as I was beginning to find some sense in Em and Bob, it hit me that maybe two people in the same room reading putatively great literature (you know Twain n “classics”) and using bookmarks were losing at a pretty speedy rate, pretending to culture but missing it, while they missed each other too, like my mother said, “with your nose stuck in a book.” But maybe they were catching something, as well.
Contagious, I guess. I caught something too and went on to dabble in the poesy racket a little myself, you know, but it wasn’t till I was thirty that I got untangled from what Simon says and learned to stop worrying. You see (maybe), it had come to me that ole Paul was maybe writing a poem himself, syncopation and images, emotions and all that, with more than one possible meaning hovering in the air over the page without slapping at each other. But were lyrics and poetry identical, similar, overlapping, twins or kissing cousins? None of the above? When Kenny Rogers sang, “You decorated my life,” I knew he’d gone under the bar poetry-wise, as decoration is pretty superficial, and the rest of the song was pointing at something deeper, or trying to. He wasn’t writing anything nearly as careful as poems were rumored to be. Well, it was a conundrum for quite a spell.
But relief came when I saw the puck himself on The Dick Cavett (or Civet of something) Show. If you missed Little Richard’s interviews with all sorts of Mailers, Buckley Juniors, Hepburns, Capotes and so on (even Jack the Kerouac doing a soft shoe routine and singing “flat foot floogie with a floy floy, yeah”) you should make an appointment with Dr. Google and catch up. Dickie bird was something of a wag and a wit and not very interested in the dieting habits of date movie ingénues, so he set out on one of the untrodden paths by telling Paul how much he admired the poetry in his sensitive songs.
Get ready for a little shock, which was about 110 and not likely to scorch you too much. Wise Simon said that he wrote song lyrics, not poetry. So anybody who wanted poetry should go to Dylan Thomas. Well, that shook me up, but in a good way. When I was young and easy in the mercy of his means , , ,” – that lilty vividry and shiver. Also hard to unsnarl, but rewarding. He encouraged me to enjoy the work of saying it and listening into it and giving poetry a lot of my late nights at the kitchen table, which keeps me off the streets when I have miles to go before I sleep.
Well, now it’s back to the front lines where I predict the past that’s not dead or even past.
Your part-time assistant and culture correspondent on specious assignment in So-So, Mississippi,