In response to the awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, reporters and bloggers anxiously mused, "Are song lyrics poetry?" As musings go, this one is wooly and threadbare as grandfather's cardigan, offering little more than terms of exclusion; "Get out of my anthology!" shouts Pop-Pop at the neighborhood kids. A question that yields more insight, but that also takes longer than a blog post to answer, might be "Where is the poetry in song lyrics?"
I found myself asking that very question while reading Johnny Cash's Forever Words, a collection of previously unpublished poems and unrecorded song lyrics. Cash, who died in 2003, never rose to Dylan's level of wordplay; hearing the gravelly, God-haunted, and thoroughly human tones of his late Unearthed albums, one suspects Cash wasn't willing to make the devil's barter that Dylan did, sacrificing voice for song. Fair enough. But even if they lack Dylan's sheer linguistic display, might one ask if Cash's lyrics possess the verbal resonance, lapidary phrasing, and suggestive imagery we find in great poetry?
In "Don't Make a Movie About Me," Cash warns, "If you don't know my tune you can't get it right," and everything about Forever Words suggests that one needs to know the tune, to be invested in Cash's music in order to be moved by his writings. As his son John Carter Cash admits in the foreword, "When I hold these papers, I feel his presence within the handwriting." The handwriting, not the writing itself.
That's not to say there aren't moments of genuine poetry here. At his best, Cash reads like a down-home Renaissance lyricist, as in "Chinky Pin Hill", with its echoes of Christopher Marlowe's famous invitation, "Come live with me and be my love / And we will all the pleasures prove":
Come along with me and we
Will get away from it all
We'll go through the mountains past
The shining waterfall
John Donne might have chuckled at the mordant humor that emerges in "I Wish You a Merry Christmas" through a series of curses for one who broke the speaker's heart: "I wish that you had choked on the glue / Of the goodbye letter you wrote" and "I hope you'll be committed / On the dawn that Christmas breaks." And in "Forever," there's something of Sir Philip Sidney's longing for artistic immortality:
You tell me that I must perish
Like the flowers that I cherish…
But the trees that I planted
Still are young
The songs I sang
Will still be sung
Cash's subjects are various, if familiar from his songs: they include love of God, women, and gold; the misery of addiction; episodes of inexplicable violence; the lives of Job and of Tecumseh; and the ordinary pleasures of hunting and drinking muscadine wine. Cash offers smart-aleck treatments of the pitfalls of celebrity, expressions of alienation and loneliness, and ballads of thwarted romance and romance achieved. He is by turns ironic, lusty, exultant, self-pitying, macho, and gentle, and sometimes he simply wants to tell a good story.
Unfortunately, Cash is working with limited poetic resources. He hews so closely to the conventions of rockabilly that his lines risk rhythmic sameness at times, while his rhymes can hammer more than chime ("With love she turned around / A tragedy unsound"). Longer lines especially can plague him; in "Spirit Rider," one hears him just filling out the beats: "I will mount my Hi-Yo, and I will ride off, ma'am / And I'll go on (and on and on) and on and on." If such limitations are the inheritance of his musical career, they are forgivable, or at least understandable. Other inheritances, however, ought to have been drowned at birth. Trying to evoke a Southern drawl, he resorts to pronunciations straight out of Hee-Haw:
We crossed Clinch River where
The skeeters scratch
Then we smoked 'em out
In a baccer patch
And the women in these poems seem not to exist apart from the men in their lives, living only to save them from their own reckless violence ("a kind sweet voice kept haunting him, / Joe, don't take your gun to town"), to lift them up ("I was driving in the rain / Twenty miles from Bangor, Maine / When I realized how much you mean to me"), or to satisfy their many cravings ("Who's gonna grease my skillet / When you're gone").
There is poetry in these works, and that's to Cash's credit. But if we truly want to test them as poems, perhaps we ought to empty out the Cash and ask if this same collection, submitted to publishers anonymously, would ever see the light of day. I think it might, but it wouldn't receive nearly the same attention; its numerous facsimile pages of Cash's hand-written compositions, its apologetic introduction by New Yorker poetry editor and amateur rock musician Paul Muldoon, and its several poems about, well, being Johnny Cash, fairly scream vanity project. Nothing nearly so vile as the collected works of Jim Morrison or of Jewel, mind you, but one trying to equip itself with excellence drawn from another venture. It's like putting a tooled leather saddle on an old quarter horse: it's flattering for the rider, but it won't make the horse trot any faster. Better to keep life simple and close to the ground:
So we double-rode my borrowed hoss
Till the land got flat
For like the cotton
Love grows good
In ground like that
A few of the works in Forever Words do cover that ground. Maybe not enough to justify the collection, but if you're reading it, you probably already love Cash, so you'll know how to find the poetry that's addressed "not to the wind and stars / But to people's hearts."