Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Paul Simon, poet

"The people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan."
Paul Simon, quoted in Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin

Of all the adjectives one might use to describe Paul Simon, humble is not likely to be among them. In his new biography of the singer and songwriter, Peter Ames Carlin often mentions Simon's resistance to ever apologizing or admitting he was wrong. The singer often ignores or downplays the contributions of others to his success, one of the many reasons for his breakup with Art Garfunkel. Carlin tells the story of the time Simon invited the band Los Lobos to play some tunes for him. On the second day he heard one he liked, put his own words to it and recorded it without giving Los Lobos any credit at all. Arrangers, too, found themselves ignored when albums were released.

Yet proud Paul Simon usually turns humble whenever anyone calls him a poet. "I don't consider myself a poet. I'm a songwriter," he once told Time magazine. He reads what he considers real poetry, such as the work of Wallace Stevens and Edgar Arlington Robinson, and he has never considered his own work equal to that.

Poetry, like music, is not all of equal quality, however. One can be a poet and yet still not be the equal of Wallace Stevens. I pulled off the shelf my copy of Simon's Lyrics 1964-2008 and read again the words to such Simon songs as Graceland, Slip Slidin' Away, Richard Cory (inspired by a Robinson poem), Mrs. Robinson and Darling Lorraine. They read like poems to me. I found these lines in Homeward Bound, an early Paul Simon song:

On a tour of one-night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And everything is neatly planned
For a poet and a one-man band

So maybe, despite his protestations, Simon has always considered himself a poet after all.

The mention of Bob Dylan in the above quote from Carlin's book is intriguing, especially since Dylan was recently announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Early in Simon's career, during his folk music phase, the singer resented Dylan's stature in folk music, and he hated having everything he did compared with what Dylan did. Now that his rival, a songwriter like himself, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Simon may, for once in his life, feel sorry for something he has done, namely denying that he himself is a poet.

No comments:

Post a Comment