Every four weeks, something a little different will hit the mix tape: actual song lyrics. As a teenager, the first poetry I wrote was in the form of song lyrics, using my lame guitar-playing skills and my fairly solid vocal ones to create anthems to unrequited love and other such teenage subjects. Song lyrics are the first poems many of us learn as children – and for some people, lyrics ARE the poetry of their lives.
I was lucky enough to be introduced to Simon and Garfunkel by my father at an early age, and you cannot find songwriters much better than Paul Simon. One of my earliest favorite Paul Simon lyrics is for the song “The Boxer.” I have taken the liberty of relining the lyrics below:
I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told.
I have squandered my resistance
for a pocket full of mumbles such are promises.
All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants
to hear and disregards the rest.
When I left my home and my family, I was
no more than a boy in the company
of strangers, in the quiet of the railway
station running scared, laying low, seeking
out the poorer quarters where the ragged
people go, looking for the places
only they would know
Asking only workman’s wages, I go looking
for a job, but I get no offers-just a come-on
from the whores on Seventh Avenue. I do declare,
there were times when I was so lonesome,
I took some comfort there.
Now I’m laying out my winter clothes
and wishing I was gone – going home
where the New York City winters aren’t
bleeding me, bleeding me – going home
In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter
by his trade, and he carries the reminders
of every blow that laid him down or cut him
‘til he cried out in his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
but the fighter still remains.
This is definitely a poem, if for nothing else but the brilliant line “a pocket full of mumbles such are promises.” Though some may say that the story of the downtrodden boy who moves to the big city is overdone, the metaphor of the boxer makes it more than that, and the rhythmic participial phrases in the second verse (all those wonderful –ing words), the subtle alliteration (“workman’s wages”, “winter clothes and wishing”), and the different depictions of longing in each stanza (especially the fourth) also make it a lovely piece of writing that stands on its own without the harmonies and the haunting li la li chorus.
If You Want to Write:
Try taking some of your favorite song lyrics and relining them as poems – to see if you find poetic elements in them when they are stripped of their music. Or use a favorite line of song lyric as a title or a first line for a new poem.