It is only fitting that Johnny Cash’s Forever Words: The Unknown Poems was published in late 2016, only a few weeks after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is not fitting for the dignity Dylan’s prize bestowed upon singers and songwriters (although some was indeed bestowed), and it is not fitting because it entitles the editor of the volume, Paul Muldoon (himself a poet), to select lyrics of songs Cash never recorded and call them “poems”; what makes the publishing timing for this book perfect is the public discussion, aroused by Dylan’s award, about the validity of counting songwriting as literature, for this volume represents the unflawed way to end the discussion: to present a book of good poetry.
Trying to explain the importance of publishing lyrics, spanning for several decades, which Cash did not see fit to turn into songs, the introductory texts inadvertently echo the discussion brought about by Dylan’s Nobel; both in the foreword (“Redemptions”), written by Cash’s son John Carter Cash, and in Muldoon’s introduction, the attempt to justify the publishing of these unknown lyrics ends up in the attempt to explain the relevance of the lyrics in songwriting, naturally placing them on the same level as poems.
In the foreword, most of John Carter’s concern is directed at what made his father the man he was, beyond the fame and recognition as a singer, focusing on the little quirks not known by fans such as his good humor and scholarship of ancient books and the Bible. Among the things making the man, “words” are of course prominent: Cash left papers dating back to his youth, including letters written to his first wife in the 1950’s and his teenage first attempts at poetry. The unannounced questions John Carter is answering are: Should lyrics for songs never recorded be printed? Are not the lyrics only a small part of what Cash did? For John Carter, the justification for publishing these lyrics comes from the relevance of words in Cash’s life, a relevance which can simply be attested for if one attends to the amount of written papers he left behind.
On the other hand, Muldoon’s concern as an editor is to vouch for the worthiness of the lyrics published, noting for instance that the reputations of Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, or T. S. Eliot “have suffered at least a dent from the indiscriminate publication of their second- or third-rate efforts”; according to Muldoon, in Cash’s case the question might be even harder, since his work is not really finished until a song is recorded: “The defining characteristic of an effective lyric—even the greatest of them—is that it doesn’t quite hold up to the scrutiny we might bring to bear on a poem, that only something along the lines of that missing boom-chicka will allow it to be completely what it most may be.”
This “missing boom-chicka” is a problematic issue, since, according to Muldoon, it is the result of our knowledge of Cash: “So ingrained in our collective unconscious is the voice of Johnny Cash that we can all but hear the boom-chicka boom-chicka of his guitar accompaniment, at once reassuring and disquieting in its very familiarity.” The distinction between lyrics and poems is of little interest, for in a certain sense anyone would immediately recognize the shortcoming of the lyrics written-form as an annotation for a song (in this case, a song-to-be). Moreover, Muldoon clearly relates lyrics to poetry by noting the filial bonds to the Scots ballad tradition, brought about by some philological work on the origin of the name “Cash,” and by conjuring Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to assert Cash’s relevance within the American folk song tradition.
Muldoon’s attempt to input all these strains of connection between lyrics and poems puts him in a difficult position when he comes out with his definition of what counts as good poetry, since it requires the notion of “anonymity.” Muldoon’s contradiction lies in his hesitation towards what makes poetry worthy, for in his final assessment he praises Cash’s wordmanship exactly for its anonymity:
In addition to the sense that it functions within time, the great work of art brings with it a profound sense of timelessness. There’s a sense of immortality and inevitability that suggests (1) that it has always existed and (2) that it was always meant to exist in this form and this form only. Johnny Cash’s quiet insistence that his songs “will still be sung” might easily be read as self-regarding but is more accurately perceived as a manifestation of the humility that is an absolute prerequisite in art-making: it has less to do with his name and fame being bruited about in Dubai or Decatur or Dunfermline itself than with his achieving a kind of beautiful anonymity.
After praising Cash for the specific “boom-chicka” his words elicit and the way those words reflect several concerns throughout time (from political concerns to personal issues), here Muldoon praises anonymity, a special craftsmanship Cash had of making his lyrics sound as if they could have been written many centuries ago. Anonymity moves exactly against the particulars which set Cash apart from all others within not only the folk tradition, but also among his contemporaries.
The virtue of this book does not lie in its academic merits or in the way the lyrics chosen somehow demonstrate poetic abilities; it lies, as Muldoon so well remarks, in the possibility of once again relating to the words of someone gone, even if it is a mistake to ascribe to this volume the necessary presence of its author. Curiously enough, it is Cash’s son who makes the point when he tries to explain his father exists in more places than just the songs:
His books on ancient history, such as Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, were annotated, read, reread and worn, his very soul deeply ingrained in their threadbare pages. I still have some of these books. When I hold them, when I touch the pages, I can sense my father in some ways even more profoundly than in his music.
It is moving that in the presentation of a book made up only by Cash’s words, one be faced with such a description of the relevance of the objects that surrounded Cash during his lifetime. It is in this sense his son recognizes that no matter how relevant words were, there was more to his father, and in the end his memory lives as much in objects as in the songs; by doing so, he relieves the book of the burden of carrying more that what it is printed within it, as it is often the case of posthumous works. This is not the case and Muldoon’s concern in choosing the lyrics is just with showcasing the best ones available; this is, I believe, the main reason why this is such a precious book: it exists only to share some more of Cash’s work.
As such, in this book one can unreservedly relish on Cash’s narrative concision as the final stanzas of “The Captain’s Daughter” attest to:
Your daddy’s given you a home
But you’ve got nobody when he’s gone
I’ll go and leave you all alone
If the answer is still no ho no no no.
My daddy’s on the churning sea
And he would turn me across his knee
If he knew you were kissing me
I won’t stay when you go ho no no no no.
Or, in another extraordinary example, “Room 1702,” where the man heard crying in the first lines,
In the hotel room alone I was lying
In the night a man was softly crying
He grabbed his phone
And then he started screaming
I covered up my head and said,
is identified by the pronouns in the last lines:
Then someone was knocking at my door
Thru the bolted door I stepped right thru
And we walked out of 1702.
In “I Wish you a Merry Christmas,” one can savor the sudden variation between utter cruelty and comedy in just a few lines, going from: “It’s been said you went to bed with one of my best friends / I hope he told you he’s positive and the end will soon begin,” to these final lines of the song:
But I wish you a Merry Christmas
And I’m sending you a gift
A nice neck brace and crutches, cause your old car won’t shift
You’ll know before you get this, that I fixed it up to break
I wanted you to know as you go
From the hospital to Central State
Yes I wish you a Merry Christmas
And a very short New Year.
Or we can marvel as in “Crowley’s Ridge” Cash elegantly turns a hinted chorus into something much more resonating as
The rich Delta land
Was black and flat
But the cotton grows good
In ground like that.
is turned into
So we doubled-rode my borrowed hoss
Till the land got flat
For like the cotton
Love grows good
In ground like that.
It seems a small feat for a book that it exists to showcase those aspects of an author one already knows, particularly when one has to imagine what could have been the music; those who do not understand it as being enough might have forgotten that a book could (and mostly should) exist only for our mere enjoyment.