With the announcement of the awarding of the Medal of Freedom to James Taylor, among others, we think of the difference between song lyrics and, well, lyrics. The difference, that is, between pop song lyrics and lyrical poetry.
It isn’t what she’s got to say but how she thinks and where she’s been.
To me, the words are nice, the way they sound.
I like to hear them best that way, it doesn’t much matter what they mean.
She says them mostly just to calm me down.
No, it doesn’t much matter what these words say, it’s Taylor’s mellifluous baritone that calms us down and that we appreciate. He could be humming diddly-piddly, and we’d still like the results.
It’s unfair, of course, to judge a pop singer mostly by the quality of his lyrics. And in truth, Taylor’s lyrics are not always piffle and not always bad. But what passes for poetry, or song, in the popular mind is not what poetry, and song, are capable of.
I was thinking of this theme the other day, humming a Gershwin love song (“How Long Has This Been Going On?”):
Oh, I feel that I could melt;
Into Heaven I’m hurled!
I know how Columbus felt,
Finding another world.
Again, it’s not mainly the lyrics we are hooked by, though gods know Ira Gershwin could spin out some very clever words (the old classical New York jazz standards that Woody Allen loves). It’s George Gershwin’s music, as sung by greats like Ella Fitzgerald, that mesmerizes us and brings us back, again and again, to tunes that summarize and transcend their era.
And then, while I was humming the Gershwins, Keats’ song popped into my head — the corresponding and concluding lines about discovery in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” And he’s talking here about discovering Homer through an English translation!
Imagine writing about reading as if it were an act of heroic discovery, not pain, not drudgery, the way too many kids today, in the pop-music-saturated world, think about reading. To approach a text, for gods’ sakes, “with a wild surmise”! To look each other in the eyes, not like lovers in a pop song but like conquistadores, who before they arrived here, at the summit of discovery, had no idea in the world that such a world existed.
In Mexico, where my wife and I were vacationing, the girls and young women know how to pack it in and wrap it around.
You can see the fashion cues in the mannequins at the stores, out on the sidewalk, stuffed into tight jeans, the zippers sometimes not zipped up all the way. What the hell, it’s a semi-tropical if Catholic country, and the girls aren’t walking like virgins or saints down church aisles. They are strutting their stuff, if they got it, and not shy about it either.
One consequence of this strutting, of course, is early pregnancy and poverty. You see many young girls either pregnant or with babes in arms or tow, or both. Combine this sad fact with the begging vendors on all sides, people without much education out on the streets hawking wares of all kinds — food, clothes, phones, flashlights, bird whistles, glass stirring sticks, bootleg CDs and movies, you name it — and you’ll get some inkling of how quickly things ripen and then rot in Mexico, how rapidly possibility runs into impassivity.
One day, about a week ago, in Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico — terribly crowded and polluted too — Jen and I visited a couple of museums and then, about noon, sat down in an outside restaurant on a square.
When I entered the restaurant — there are metal rails all around, defining the space — I noticed, directly in my path, a gorgeous young girl, who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 20, sitting with a couple of old folks, that is, about my age and Jen’s. I looked at the girl with obvious interest, and she looked straight back, unblinking.
We took a table next to that where the girl and her party were sitting, and had a beer and snack.
When we left, I looked at her again, helplessly, with obvious interest, and she stared at me as boldly and unwaveringly as any woman has ever looked at me. (Back in the day, women would look at me, you see. But we needn’t go into that at this time. ) The girl swiveled her head and stared at me as if, well, I don’t know. As if I were the second coming of Christ? Or Satan on a stick? Or her last chance at getting out of that life of limited education and income?
As if to say, Hey, old gringo, get me out of here?
As it to say, What the hell you staring at me like that for?
As if to say, Now where if anywhere does it go from here?
You’re browsing through a second hand bookstore,
And you see her in non-fiction V through Y.
She looks up from World War II,
And then you catch her catching you catching her eye …
Of course, there are a thousand other possibilities that lie behind that glance. What do I know? I’m just an old gringo with all the usual old boys’ habits and longings. I know, as you do, that life is short, and sweet, and fleeting. I know that in a tropical, or subtropical, clime, you do as the Romans, or the Tapatios, do (as Guadalajarans call themselves). You relax, expand, look around, and sigh. You go on with your life, and it takes you where it will.
And you think about
The people that you never get to love,
The poem you intended to begin.
The saddest words that anyone has ever said are
“Lord, what might have been.”
But no one said you get to win.
Now my dear wife Jennifer, who’s been my bride for 90 years, I joked to people in Mexico, says that the girl was obviously mentally defective, perhaps one of those Down’s Syndrome people who don’t look like Down’s Syndrome people. Why else, she reasoned, would a beautiful young girl look at a geezer like me?
No one said you get to win, all right — except what you’ve already won, like your spouse, who, if she’s like mine, is fine, and took some doing. Or the poem you not only intended to write, but did.