'Forever Words' Offers Little-Known Look At Johnny Cash, The Poet

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Musician Johnny Cash in 1977. (AP)
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It’s hard to imagine Johnny Cash’s music without the boom-chicka-boom-chicka of the guitar that’s featured in those songs. But Cash’s lyrics were also poetry. And in fact, thanks to a new book, we know that he also wrote poetry.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks about Cash’s poetry with Princeton University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, the editor of “Forever Words.”

Interview Highlights

On concerns prior to publishing the collection

“One does not want to… sully — let’s use a word like that — the memory, the reputation of Johnny Cash, which is, you know, pretty much unassailable. So we didn’t want to be printing anything that we thought wasn’t up to par.”

On Cash’s poem “California Poem”

There’s trouble on the mountain, and the valley is full of smoke

There’s crying on the mountain, and again, the same heart broke

The lights are on past midnight, the curtains closed all day

There’s trouble on the mountain, the valley people say

“There’s something about that, I mean it’s not that it couldn’t function as a song lyric, it absolutely could. But there’s something in the nuance of ‘the valley people say,’ it’s almost as if the… it forces us to put the stress on ‘the valley people,’ and one of the things that we simply cannot do, or at least it’s very difficult to do when we’re singing a song, is to stress one word over another. It’s just one of those distinctions that actually is a clue as to how these two genres might indeed be different.”

On the European influences in Cash’s poetry, and his poem “The Dogs Are In The Woods”

“The great American song tradition stems substantially from the great song traditions of Ireland, England and Scotland. And indeed, the Cash family come from Scotland, and indeed they’re mentioned as being associated with Dunfermline Town, and of course it was Dunfermline Town where the fabulous ballad ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is set, the king sits in Dunfermline Town. And one of the things that I really love about Johnny Cash is the extent to which he’s able to extend the ballad tradition, and there’s one that I think is particularly representative of that, it’s called ‘The Dogs Are In the Woods.’

The dogs are in the woods, and the huntin’s looking good

And the raccoons on the hill, I can hear them trailing still

But he’s on the other side, and he’ll find a place to hide

But the dogs’ll hunt him down, and they’ll catch him on the ground

But the fur is gonna fly, and a hound is gonna cry

And we may not know tonight, who will finally win the fight

“And, you know, that’s an absolutely astonishing stanza, it seems to me, where we go from the, actually a cliche, ‘the fur is gonna fly,’ but one that’s re-visited, one that’s given a new lease of life. ‘The fur is gonna fly,’ it’s a cliche because it’s an accurate description of something that happens in the world of hunting, in this case, and ‘we may not know tonight, who will finally win the fight,’ and we can imagine Cash speaking that himself, in that extraordinary, resonant voice. And we can see that the poem, or the ballad there, has moved beyond itself — and its immediate concerns about a dog catching a raccoon — to something larger. But ‘the dogs are in the woods, and the huntin’s looking good, the fire is burning low, we wet it down and go.’ Brilliant picture painting again… the painting of a scene, and he’s really an adept in that.”

More Poems From ‘Forever Words’

By Johnny Cash

Body On Body

1980s

You wonder how (where) true love goes

No one can say—cause nobody knows

Like rain on a rock—like a leaf in the air

No way to tell but it’s going somewhere.

You wonder what—true love knows

No one can say—cause nobody knows

It don’t make sense—like a midnite sun

And one and one—is only one.

Heart on heart—and soul on soul

Body on body is how it goes

Heart on heart and soul on soul

Body on body—is all it knows.

Forever

Summer 2003

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.

Let’s Put It To Music

1960s

How do you feel about me

Now that you’ve learned to know me?

Why don’t we both admit

That something is happening.

And we would feel better if

We’d just tell each other

No need to keep it to ourselves.

Let’s put it to music

Let’s put it to music

Let’s sing about it

Laugh about it

Clap our hands

And shout about it

Let the whole world hear it

In a sweet, sweet melody

Let’s put it to music, you and me.

From FOREVER WORDS: The Unknown Poems by Johnny Cash, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Foreword copyright © 2016 by John Carter Cash.

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