Paul Simon, Author

paul-simon

As a site devoted to books and art, we don’t normally venture into the world of music, but our subject today is as much a literary and publishing event as a musical one. This month Simon & Schuster has released a complete hardcover collection of the lyrics of Paul Simon, titled simply Lyrics 1964-2008. The book comes four years after S&S gave the same treatment to Bob Dylan’s writings, in a volume also called Lyrics. The format is clearly meant to suggest an elder poet’s collected works, and it may raise a few eyebrows (or shrugs) among critics still unhappy at seeing this kind of literary respectability accorded a rock ‘n’ roll star. At the same time, it may open the floodgates to a host of similar collections intended to please the fans, and massage the egos, of far less worthy artists. (Dare we imagine Meat Loaf: The Complete Works?) For the moment, however, aesthetic justice has been done. In its short history, rock ‘n’ roll has produced a fair number of brilliant musicians, and a handful of successful lyric poems by scattered performers (we’d point to Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving” and a few others), but only two artists whose work consistently repays critical scrutiny as poetry: Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

Of the two, Dylan has attracted the far greater share of critical attention, having already been the subject of a mammoth study by an Oxford literature professor and the reputed recipient of several Nobel Prize nominations—honors that we find to be slightly silly. In fact, as much as we enjoy Dylan’s work, we’ve always felt that his development as a poet suffered somewhat from the fawning overpraise he received from the outset of his career. Simon also rose early to fame, yet he has often been overshadowed in various ways: by Dylan himself, by flashier rock stars, even by his former singing partner Art Garfunkel, whom many fans still incorrectly assume to have co-written the songs they performed together. The somewhat dimmer glare of the limelight seems to have helped Simon refine, and redefine, his art over several decades, but now that he is (sadly) no longer producing great work it is a good time to look back with full appreciation on the output of his glory days.

Those days lasted, roughly speaking, from 1968 (with the release of the Simon & Garfunkel Bookends album) to 1990 (which brought The Rhythm of the Saints). All of his prior lyrics can be considered juvenilia—maudlin and overwrought, though with flashes of real potential—and everything afterward has been a steep falling-off, though with occasional glimmers of past talent. (On the other hand, much of his music from both periods is superb.) In the years between, Simon established a poetic space for himself as a kind of anti-Dylan: perfectionist where Dylan was rough-hewn, urbane and miniaturist where Dylan was apocalyptic and maximalist, witty and keenly-observed where Dylan was deliberately bizarre. The result was a long string of solidly-crafted short poems punctuated every so often by true gems: “Mrs. Robinson,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “Oh, Marion,” “Hearts and Bones” (notable for its concision and complexity of biblical imagery; the title was inspired by Yeats’s “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”), “Can’t Run But,” and the entirety of Graceland, an album that—more than any other in rock history—works wonderfully as a suite of short poems.

We don’t have the time or space to devote to a full study of Simon’s lyrics, but we would like to share one poem that we think Abbeville readers will enjoy, as it humorously and subtly pays tribute to art history. Its title, adapted from an old newspaper caption Simon came across, is “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War”:

René and Georgette Magritte
With their dog after the war
Returned to their hotel suite
And they unlocked the door
Easily losing their evening clothes
They danced by the light of the moon
To the Penguins, the Moonglows,
The Orioles, and the Five Satins
The deep forbidden music
They’d been longing for
René and Georgette Magritte
With their dog after the war
René and Georgette Magritte
With their dog after the war
Were strolling down Christopher Street
When they stopped in a men’s store
With all of the mannequins dressed in the style
That brought tears to their immigrant eyes
Just like the Penguins, the Moonglows,
The Orioles, and the Five Satins
The easy stream of laughter
Flowing through the air
René and Georgette Magritte
With their dog aprés la guerre
Side by side, they fell asleep
Decades gliding by like Indians
Time is cheap
When they wake up, they will find
All their personal belongings
Have intertwined
René and Georgette Magritte
With their dog after the war
Were dining with the power élite
And they looked in their bedroom drawer
And what do you think
They have hidden away
In the cabinet cold of their hearts?
The Penguins, the Moonglows,
The Orioles, and the Five Satins
For now and ever after
As it was before
René and Georgette Magritte,
With their dog, after the war

Hardly a portrait of the real-world Magritte and his wife, this affectionate story of an immigrant couple is enriched by original, surreal imagery—the gliding Indians, the seemingly absurd dog, even the names of the old doo-wop groups—that remains true to Magritte’s spirit without confining itself to literal ekphrasis. The closing lines hover on the edge of sentimentality but convincingly oppose a permanent value to the “cheapness” of time. That value, of course, is faithful love, as symbolized by the dog—which Simon sings about with peculiar emphasis at the end and which, as he presumably knows, is a traditional emblem of fidelity in paintings of newlyweds. Thus “René and Georgette Magritte” is both a modern poem and an antique ballad, skillfully linking modern and classic art, new love and old.

We don’t want to overstate our case: like Dylan, Simon is neither in the first rank of poets nor the first rank of composers. He is, simply, one of our very greatest songwriters. Songwriting at its highest level has become a curious hybrid art, invented or re-invented by Dylan out of the old bardic tradition, and within it Simon has produced as beautiful and durable a body of work as any American artist of his era. His music, with its constant experimentation, dazzling eclecticism (he has assimilated everything from Louisiana zydeco to Bach), and obsessive perfectionism, has always earned abundant praise from both musicians and listeners. With the publication of this new volume, we hope to see his words garner equal, and equally well-deserved, acclaim.

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2 Comments

Filed under Art, Books and Publishing, Media

2 responses to “Paul Simon, Author

  1. Great post. If you’re into readings of Dylan as poetry, check out Christopher Ricks, a legit lit critic who idolizes Dylan. Ricks intensity and encyclopedic grasp of Dylan will make you dizzy, but it’s a great read if you can maintain consciousness.

    Bob

  2. Pingback: Paul Simon Web | These are the days of lasers in the jungle

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