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John Pawlak: Sitting on a cornflake

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Back in high school, I disliked poetry. Well, “dislike” isn’t really strong enough, but “hate” implies more effort than your typical high school student is willing to invest in a course.

Let’s just say I had a strong aversion to reading drivel like e.e. cummings (whose typewriter was missing the cap key). I got neck aches from nodding my head in iambic tetrameter to Kilmer’s “Trees” (A mime to chime a rhyme in time).

And seriously, what guy in his right mind would use a Shakespearean love sonnet as a pick up line? “Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come!”

Fortunately, I did eventually find poetry I could relate to, not in the classic qualitative meter popularized by overrated European poets, but with a much better beat.

It was rock music that spoke to me in rhythmic beauty.

Let’s be fair. If it’s poetic to have fog coming in on little cat feet, then it’s equitable to have literature students play in an octopus’s garden in the shade.

When discussing early rock music, one automatically thinks of The Beatles. But that wasn’t rock at first, not really. More a modified strain of rock and roll. It took two giants to spawn the rock we love (or hate) today.

In the mid-60s, John Lennon and Bob Dylan had an iconic moment in rock history. Referring to Dylan’s quiet acoustic sound, Lennon said, “When you play your music, I can’t hear you.” Dylan, referring to the content-less babble of yeah, yeah, yeahs, responded, “When you play your music, you’re not saying anything.”

Poetry was plugged in and a new era of rock was spawned. Dylan’s poetry was amplified and Lennon realized he “should’ve known better,” drumming up a beat with a Norwegian wood, finding that poetry was anything, but nowhere man.

Within just three or four years, we were showered by words flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup, weeping guitars and holes filling the Albert Hall.

But for me, it was sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come. It all finally made sense (envisioning a semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower) and music became my doorway to poetry.

Other musicians (e.g. Jim Morrison) were opening up new doors of perception. Poetry became the foundation of mainstream rock.

Procol Harum skipped the light fandango and turned cartwheels across the floor. Simon and Garfunkel bowed to the neon gods of silent raindrops. Don McLean painted palettes with eyes that know the darkness in his soul. 

And, of course, the lady who was sure that everything that glittered was gold bought that stairway to heaven.

It was poetry, pure and simple. And made all that much more enjoyable (or painful, depending on your viewpoint) when played at 95-plus decibels.

The poets rained down. The Who lamented, “You don’t know what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes.”

Paul Simon challenged love with “I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.”

“Riders on the Storm.” “Candle in the Wind.” “Comfortably Numb.”

OK, I admit it. The lyrics of many rock songs have the depth of a parking lot puddle. But there are some real gems out there (if you can understand the words).

“You wouldn’t even know a diamond if you held it in your hand. The things you think are precious, I don’t understand.”

“You lock the door. You throw away the key. There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”

“He hears the silence howling, catching angels as they fall.”

“Hey kids, plug into the faithless. Maybe they’re blinded, but Bennie makes them ageless.”

Like any music form, rock music has its (more than) fair share of word salad. But that’s the beauty of art. You have a wide choice of poetic dishes from which to sample.

Myself, I’ll take “Bohemian Rhapsody” over Kubla Khan in Xanadu any day of the week.