Forever Words by Johnny Cash, edited by Paul Muldoon
John Carter Cash found unpublished lyrics and poems among tall stacks of documents and papers in his father’s homes. After Johnny Cash died in 2003, Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of The New Yorker, helped John Carter Cash sort the poems and collect some of them into this volume. The poems appear with images of a few of the original handwritten pages, and photographs of Johnny Cash.
His biographies tell that as a boy Johnny Cash was drawn to self-expression through writing, and that he read literary poetry, certainly an unusual interest for a youngster in rural Alabama in the years of the Great Depression. He aspired to fame as a performer, not to fame through perfection in composition. Throughout his life Cash kept performing and kept feeding his performances with the products of the hard work of writing. His son tells that at family gatherings his father would disappear, and be found in a quiet room, writing.
Many of the poems in this book are interesting to us simply because Johnny Cash wrote them. Cash probably hoped to find tunes for most of them and to sing them. But some of them stand out, not as great poems but as honest creations of a reflective, spiritual person trying to package memories, thoughts and emotions in poems.
Sometimes adult career paths are set in daydreams of early childhood. Cash’s biographers tell that from an early age he wanted to be a singer and an entertainer. His song Tennessee Flattop Box, released in the early sixties, is a musical statement of who Cash wanted to become when he was young, and of what he became as an adult: a boy with his guitar, singing and playing for an audience.
People came from miles around.
And all the girls
from there to Austin
were slippin’ away from home
and puttin’ jewelry in hock
to take the trip
to go and listen
to the little dark-haired boy
who played the Tennessee flat top box.
I reviewed the book for The Christian Century.