Saturday, October 30, 2010

Paul Simon, Stephen Sondheim

David Derbes, on the eschaton comment page, cited this wonderful review of Stephen Sondheim's autobiography by Paul Simon:

Simon's review is great, not least because he remains introspective, but places his introspection in service of understanding another rather than, as a self-involved adolescent, in crafting an identity for oneself in an uncomfortable world. Not a few of us can imagine or recall a journey like that. And he's dead-on about Sondheim.

A song's different from a poem: you experience it in real time rather than chew on it; the music complements the words, well or not, and makes the words more memorable. And rhyme's interesting, in an era where its use is entirely optional on the page, but essential in a song. Simon and Sondheim, amongst others, write songs whose lyrics stand alone. Charles Kuralt once read aloud Hammerstein lyrics as poetry bereft of music, transforming them and forcing a reconsideration of them apart from their music, which is so much a part of the cultural landscape, always there. As I started reading poetry, I loved Auden and Yeats, who wrote musically, with rhyme as well as free verse, and loved their poems well before I understood them at all, so entrancing was their music. To write poetically, accessibly enough for a Broadway audience and deeply enough to study, is wonderful, a gift as well as a craft. And Simon, Sondheim and other poetic lyricists write for a far broader audience than do most poets in this country, whose audience is far smaller, often limited to academics and 'intellectuals'; the former requires a triumph over self-reference, the latter risks being trapped in it. They inhabit a public poet's role otherwise absent these days here; one thinks of Russians' love of poetry filling stadia in contrast.

A deep thank you to both of them. And even Simon's earliest work, sometimes embarrassingly impossible to import from the preoccupations of youth ('I am a Rock', 'Sounds of Silence'), remains dead-on wonderful, all these years later:

And, so, you see, I've come to doubt
All that I once held as true:
I stand alone, without beliefs,
The only truth I know is you

And as I watch the drops of rain
Beat their weary paths and die,
I know that I am like the rain:
There but for the grace of you go I

As true for me at 60, after 40 years with my wife, as when I tentatively held a girl's hand for the first time, and she held mine as if neither of us wanted to let go...

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