What I Learned By Reading Johnny Cash’s Book of Poetry

You can say a lot with a song. When words fail us, we turn to music to get our message across. Love, faith, and all matters of living have been hashed out stanza by stanza in every imaginable form. But some concepts and ideas don’t fit the mold of today’s song structure. Not everything can be worked into three verses and a hook. In Johnny Cash’s Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, we get a glimpse of what the artist had to say in a different form, one that highlights some of his most defining characteristics.

Many of the poems in the book could have been songs. In fact, Brad Paisley recently recorded “Gold All Over The Ground,” one of Cash’s striking poems about June. They’re simply put, reflective, and often heartfelt. Much like his music, in other words.

The poems were written over several decades and showcase just how much Cash matured over the years. His earlier, rowdy out-pours mellowed, then turned spiritual. Different parts of his life are on display, reflecting his personality and walking parallel with his music.

The similarities are apparent, but so are the differences. Stripped of his commanding voice and signature sound, Cash is left with nothing but black words on white paper to tell his stories. They carry themselves differently and have a more personal feel. Pictures of the original writings are included in a book, and add another layer to the overall feel. His messy, curving scribbles and stylish in their own way, giving the poem a sort of identity.

Because there’s nothing to distract you from what he’s saying and giving him free reign of structure, you get some dynamic writing. He’s able to capitalize on his straightforward approach in a way that can drive a profound thought home with just a few short lines.

Take one of his shorter ones, I Heard It On The New. He recalls a newscast from the 70’s that declared the fighting in Vietnam had diminished, but was expected to pick right back up after the guerilla fighters harvested their crops. His response—

“What kind of animal is man
That he would pause
In his killing
To go about the business
Of preparing for the living
Knowing
That he will immediately return
To the business of killing?”

Those are the real gems of the book, the ones where Cash is at his best and his barest. That excerpt, which is about half the poem, shows how thought provoking the musician could be without having to say much. These poems are very similar to Cash’s music, but also offer something a little different.

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