Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
…the dogs are in the woods
And the huntin’ looks good
Johnny Cash (Page 46)
My father had many faces. There was much that made up the man.
John Carter Cash in his forward to Forever Words
“This man can rhyme the tick of time/The edge of pain,/The what of sane,” Johnny Cash once wrote in a poem in 1969 that eventually became the liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Country and Western classic, “Nashville Skyline.” Due to Cash’s brilliance as a singer-songwriter, these liner notes are often overlooked in relation to his vast body of work, almost dismissed as a ‘gesture’ between friends.
But looking back, those liner notes indeed require close inspection, for they show the other side of Cash’s psyche, presenting a glimpse into the mind of the poet who gave birth to all of those wonderful songs.
And that’s just why the discovery of Cash’s Forever Words: The Unknown Poems is such a major event in both the music and literary worlds. Forever Words is comprised of Cash’s unpublished poems, the pieces spanning the singer’s entire lifetime – from the age of twelve all the way to 2003 (the year of his death). Paul Muldoon, who stands as one of Ireland’s leading poets, edited the collection; while Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash (whom he had with June Carter Cash), presents a poignant forward illuminating the deep family ties that are the true testament to Cash’s legacy.
Return to survey Cash’s incredible canon and you realize that songs like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Get Rhythm” and “Train of Love” are stark poems set to music and then brought to enduring life by Cash’s magical, big bass-baritone voice.
More than TV personality or entertainer, Cash’s life was about the emancipation of the spirit – the singer alone on stage, intent on freeing us from these fetid shackles of mental slavery. And the poet wrote:
I have been around
I have been on the incoming
And the outward bound
I came up from the fields
And I’ve been down on my knees
I have been visited by angels
While demons badgered me
(at page 75)
Reach back centuries and compare the work of Shakespeare and Blake, of Eliot and Rimbaud, of Ginsberg and Kerouac, and you see a common tongue intersecting each separate and distinct voice: Poem blooming to capture the invisible reflections of ghosts; echoes building into bells, burying all eyes in the naked physiology of mirrors.
And Cash wrote in 2003 in the year he died:
You tell me that I must perish
Like the flowers that I cherish
Nothing remaining of my name
Nothing remembered of my fame
But the trees that I planted
Still are young
The songs I sang
Will still be sung
(at page 59)
It’s now time to take the reins. And it’s now time to step forward, singing his songs. As Forever Words demonstrates, dead is not gone. The voice was meant to live on and on and on.