Paul Simon’s adamant refusal to be labeled a poet has yielded artistic dividends.



Toward the end of a 2008 interview with the L.A. Times — conducted through e-mail shortly before the Hollywood Bowl performances in which he was to revisit the songs from Astral Weeks, his classic 1968 album — Van Morrison gave a rather immodest appraisal of the work’s lyrical content. “The music on Astral Weeks is sophisticated poetry that is multilayered in sounds that I do not think the majority take the time to wrap their head [sic] around,” he wrote.

Van Morisson “Astral Weeks”

Now, I think it is safe to say that few fans of The Belfast Cowboy are more appreciative of Astral Weeks than I am. After a myriad listening phase, it remains to my mind a singular achievement. Visionary, haunting, at once diverse and unified… It’s virtually impossible to describe to the uninitiated. And it is doubtless poetic, in its own incantatory way. But Van’s characterization of its lyrics as “sophisticated poetry” is simply another manifestation of the overclaiming endemic to popular songwriters (and popular music journalists, also). There are, as always, anomalies: deservedly celebrated tunesmiths who not only refuse to consider themselves latter-day Byrons, but who unambiguously reject the appellation “poet,” preferring instead to examine critically their output and eschew projects of self-mythification. One such example is Paul Simon.

Between 1990 and 1993, Simon sat down for three interviews with Paul Zollo, then the editor of SongTalk Magazine. When reading those features, one quickly gleans that Simon takes his craft very seriously. Consequently, at times he comes off as unduly self-critical. Zollo fairly fawns over material Simon composed while still a member of Simon and Garfunkel, but Simon seems to consider the pre-“Bridge Over Troubled Water” songs juvenile, with rare exceptions — “America,” for instance — and even goes so far as to claim he wishes efforts such as “I Am A Rock” and “The Dangling Conversation” had never been written in the first place. “If they would go away, I would be happy,” he’s noted.


However, this isn’t to imply he views his solo work in terms of being bountifully rosy. Taking issue with the notion that he is a perfectionist, Simon asserts that he is in fact “a little sloppy.” “I don’t think I come close to perfect,” he says, though he later concedes that the incredible “Hearts and Bones” may be his most nearly flawless song.

“Hearts and Bones”

Whence came this reflexive self-depreciation, this inveterate creative dissatisfaction on the part of Paulie? Another portion of his exchange with Zollo provides I think, a clear clue. When asked which artists have “influenced [him] since the sixties” — ‘since the sixties’ because, as Simon freely admits, it was a time when he and other folksters (e.g., Tom Paxton and Eric Anderson) were imitating Dylan — Simon responds thus:

“Different poets that I read. Wallace Stevens. Derek Walcott…Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet whose work I like quite a bit.. .John Ashbery’s a good poet…Yeats.”

In other words, he has, by dint of patient study, become conversant with modern poetry “—  perhaps the most lapidary of the language arts, in which a single clunky phrase or dull trope can render a whole piece all but aesthetically void. In pre-papyrus times, the work of lyric poets was somewhat more akin to that of today’s singer-songwriters: as it was still an oral tradition, one was forced to employ rhyme, relatively simple diction, and strict meter if one wished for the work to be remembered and passed down. That was, of course, a long time ago. And though there have since been many disparate movements in poetry, it’s fair to say that, in its written form, it is considerably more dense and (at times) abstruse. This is not a quality unique to verse: as the late Norman Mailer, a master of prose, put it: “The best writing comes, obviously, out of a precision we do not and dare not employ when we speak…It is a style, in short, that can take you a life to achieve.”

Simon understands the intensity with which poets dedicate themselves to the task of achieving such a rarefied style. He is also cognizant of the fact that, when they manage to perform awe-inspiring feats of expression, they do so with fewer means at their disposal he, a songwriter, has. As Simon wrote in a New York Times piece memorializing his friend Seamus Heaney,

Popular culture likes to house songwriters and poets under the same roof, but we are not the close family that some imagine. Poets are distant cousins at most, and labor under a distinctly different set of rules. Songwriters have melody, instrumentation and rhythm to color their work and give it power; poets accomplish it all with words.

Hence what seems at first self-depreciation is, in fact, an appreciation of the particularity of other artists’ genius.

A corollary to Simon’s apprehension of the poet’s burden — that of having to “accomplish it all with words” — is the knowledge that the appropriation of poetic technique by a songwriter, who has other factors to consider, must be done with care so as not to undermine the melodic, instrumental, and rhythmical components of a composition. This explains Simon’s itinerary from strumming folkster to deft surveyor of many musical styles —Reggae, Jazz, South African, Brazilian, etc. — a journey too extensive to document in the space allotted here.


“Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall”

In closing, let us have a look at excerpts from two Paul Simon songs — “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall,” written in 1965, and “So Beautiful Or So What,” the closing track of his excellent 2011 album of the same name — as a way of discerning how his uncomplacent bent has permitted him to refine his art.

“So Beautiful Or So What”

Both songs address the transience of life — the first, as it is registered by a young man who, confronted with the fact of his finitude, insists (perhaps in an tacitly self-lacerating way) that he will respond by clinging to the myth of his immortality, or, to use an archaic term, his diuturnity, what Sir Thomas Browne called “a dream and folly of expectation”:

It’s no matter if you’re born

To play the King or pawn

For the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow,

So my fantasy

Becomes reality,

And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow.

So I’ll continue to continue to pretend

My life will never end,

And Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall.

The narrator is both resigned to the ineluctable catastrophe of His-Own-Death and content to live in denial of it. He doesn’t seem to really consider his cynical, voluntary obliviousness, articulated in the refrain, all that calamitous; instead, it follows logically from his conclusion that King-dom and Pawn-dom, Joy and Sorrow, Fantasy and Reality are all barely distinguishable qualities. As the value of anything is dubious, his indifference is to be expected. Death, far from being the great equalizer, is portrayed as the great futilizer. Though the metaphors and themes are hackneyed, and the use of the contraction “‘tween” redolent of an adolescent bard’s affected gentility, the lyric is nevertheless well-wrought: we should all be so lucky were we able to compose a song of similar quality, whether at 24 or 64.

“So Beautiful Or So What,” written by Simon at age 69, also concedes our cosmic insignificance, though not in a nihilistic manner, and with considerably more metaphorical flair:

I’m just a raindrop in a bucket

A coin dropped in a slot

I am an empty house on Weed Street

Across the road from the vacant lot

You know life is what you make of it

So beautiful or so what

Yes, our entrance into the world is random; our anonymity remains beyond doubt. But unlike “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall,” this is not a tale of lamentation. We possess no given import, it suggests, but we still have available to us joy (as opposed to, not identical to, sorrow) and beauty. The vacant lot could be a spiritual void, or a not-quite tabula rasa upon which inscribe our lives, choice by choice. “So Beautiful Or So What” is greatly appealing on both an aesthetic and moral level. The former narrator was imbued with a sense of significance, and the perceived injustice of his mortality casts a pall over his days, causing him to retreat. The latter has made peace with his insignificance, thereby freeing himself to turn outward and partake of life; he is attentive.  In the lyric, features of human existence both specific (making chicken gumbo, reading one’s children a bedtime story) and overarching (the strange lure of ignorance, the compulsion to approach love and time with reckless frivolity), are strung together in so fresh, fluid and meaningful a manner that, upon first listening to it, I was tempted to stand and applaud — in an empty house, on Weeks Street, as it happens, not Weed Street.


Paul Simon’s verbal and musical fluidity, and the depth and breadth of his achievement, are in no small part a function of his choice to make an outward-turn — towards other art-forms, other cultures, etc. He has declined invitations to congratulate himself time and again, a decision that has redounded to his creative advantage. Some are content to “rest on their laurels”; there obtains in Simon a kind of holy restlessness. As a listener, I’ve profited from that restlessness. Underwhelmed by a station’s choice of song, I’ll oftentimes turn the tuning knob of the car radio and, if I’m lucky, I’ll alight on one of Paul Simon’s countless gems. And I’ll think to myself, “So Beautiful.”

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