Johnny Cash's poems unveiled

NEW YORK • Shortly before he died, country singer Johnny Cash scrawled down eight short lines in a shaky hand, mortality clearly on his mind.

"You tell me that I must perish/Like the flowers that I cherish," he wrote. He considered the hell of "nothing remaining of my name", before concluding with an affirmation of his own legacy: "But the trees that I planted/Still are young/The songs I sang/Will still be sung."

That poem, Forever, is part of a new collection, Forever Words: The Unknown Poems (Blue Rider Press), to be published this week. Edited by Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Princeton professor, it includes 41 works from Cash's life - the earliest piece was done when he was 12 - that were among the papers left behind when he died in September 2003.

In some ways, the poems mirror Cash's songwriting, with terse ballads of outsiders in love, and parables from the Bible; his version of Job is a wealthy cattleman who "cried out in agony/When he lost his children and his property".

And for Cash, who in his last years drew a new audience with a set of stark and fragile recordings, the poems present yet another look at a legend of American music.

"I want people to have a deeper understanding of my father than just the iconic, cool man in black," said Mr John Carter Cash, his son. "This book will help provide that."

Some of the poems are personal. You Never Knew My Mind, from 1967, captures Cash's bitterness as he was going through his divorce from Vivian Liberto. (He married June Carter the following year.)

Don't Make A Movie About Me rejects the Hollywood machine, but then slyly gives advice on a film treatment. Going, Going, Gone, from 1990, is a painfully detailed catalogue of the ravages of drug abuse: "Liquid, tablet, capsule, powder/ Fumes and smoke and vapor/The payoff is the same in the end."

At other times, he seems to tinker with his body of work. Don't Take Your Gun To Town, dated to the 1980s, rewrites his classic 1958 song Don't Take Your Guns To Town, in which a headstrong young cowboy dies when he ignores his mother's advice.

In the new version, a jaded man plans a Taxi Driver-like rampage against "people/Who need silencing", but this time, he listens. Taxi Driver is a 1976 movie about a New York cabbie who turns vigilante.

"I believe he wanted to make a statement," the younger Cash said. "He owned guns. But he believed that you do not need to carry a gun to town."

Even so, Cash kept that version private, although, along with a handful of the poems in this collection, the manuscript for Don't Take Your Gun was sold at auction.

In his introduction, Muldoon places Cash in a poetic tradition that comes out of Scotch ballads, and also raises a point that was hotly debated after singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature last month: Are song lyrics really the same as poetry? Do lyrics lose something when removed from their musical context?

Like Cash's lyrics, the poems in Forever Words are written in plain language. There are strikingly evocative images ("The dogs are in the woods/And the huntin's lookin' good"), as well as well-worn phrases about soaring eagles and hell's fury that might pass unnoticed in a song, but jump out on the page.

In an interview, Muldoon put Cash alongside Leonard Cohen, who died last Monday, and Paul Simon as examples of songwriters whose words hold up on their own. The poems were chosen from about 200 pieces left by Cash in varying states of completion. Some may have been intended as lyrics, his son said, but it was not always clear.

The Cash estate is working on an album of songs based on the poems, with musicians including Kris Kristofferson and Jewel, in a project similar to Billy Bragg and Wilco's work with Woody Guthrie lyrics. The album is for release next autumn.

Also planned are a Broadway show and his trust recently registered trademarks for phrases such as "What would Johnny Cash do?" to place on clothing memorabilia.

The goal of Forever Words, his son said, was to establish Cash as a major poet and a "cultural American literary figure".


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline Johnny Cash's poems unveiled. Subscribe