Johnny Cash,
Forever Words: The Unknown Poems,
edited by Paul Muldoon
(Blue Rider Press, 2016)

Johnny Cash, according to his son, never threw anything away. After his death, boxes of writings surfaced -- poems, essays, lyrics, studies of the Apostle Paul and the Book of Job. Now the poet Paul Muldoon has gone through the boxes and put together a book of Cash's poems.

It is a beautiful book, well designed, illustrated with photographs of Cash's work in his own handwriting and the occasional photograph of the author. Each poem is identified by date, and all are clearly laid out on the page to make for welcoming reading.

Muldoon contributes an introduction that some -- me, for example -- might find a touch too academic; he makes a case for Cash the poet that is rooted in academic speak. He tries hard to connect Cash to the Scots-Irish tradition and equates his work with the early British ballads, comparing Cash's poems to songs like "Sir Patrick Spence." To my mind, he overdoes it; Cash doesn't need to be stretched out of shape to fit into the canon. He was an original and needs only to be accepted for himself: an Americana artist of incredible range and power.

We know Cash was a songwriter of power, authenticity and grace, but writing a great song does not enable you to necessarily write a good poem. The art forms are different. So how is Cash as a poet?

Actually, as often as not, his stuff reads like lyrics he didn't get around to writing music for; as a poet, he's a great lyricist. "The Ballad of Johnny Chapman" calls out to be sung, as do "The Captain's Daughter" and a bunch more. Muldoon is right when he mentions Cash's similarities to the early British ballads. We know Cash loved those songs and knew the genre well. The pair of songs I singled out as examples both concern people who make a choice and feel the consequences of their choice, as so many of the early ballads do. Muldoon has a point; my quarrel with his argument is that, like many professors, he takes it too far and makes more of it than is there.

And Cash is far more than a ballad-writer. Some of his work here reads like alternate takes on his songs. "Don't Take Your Gun to Town" reflects the recorded song, but this version has a political edge to it. The young man taking his gun to town intends to "avenge society." His targets are politicians, preachers who are "plastic bogus clowns" and "a singer and an actor and others I won't miss." In the original, the young man gets into a gunfight in town and is killed; in this take on the material, however, the love of a good woman keeps him home: "With love she turned around / a tragedy unsound / and heaven answered down / don't take your guns to town."

We know Johnny Cash could turn a phrase, and many of the lines in these poems are striking. There are some that make you want to read them aloud to someone else.

In all, if you like Johnny Cash, you'll love this book. In these pieces, we see Cash unguarded, revealing his inner soul, giving insights into himself, his values, philosophy, hurts and disappointments. It's impossible to escape the certainty that most of these poems, whatever their subject matter, are about Cash and his life. For instance, you can't read "Let's Put It to Music" without feeling that he is writing about falling in love with June Carter.

This is a songwriter's workbook. It's also an insight into the mind and feelings of a major artist and a good, if flawed, man.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

19 November 2016

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