Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Dangling Conversation

Simon is on record as saying, in interviews, that this is one of his least favorite of his own songs; the other I am aware of is "I Am a Rock."

The two share a sense of unease with the world, and a retreat into literature as a way of avoiding social contact. In "I Am a Rock," the speaker declares: "I have my books and my poetry to protect me." Here, the tone is softer, but the result is the same: "You read your Emily Dickinson/ And I my Robert Frost/ And we note our place with bookmarkers/ And measure what we've lost."

This song also shares an image with "Bleeker Street," which says, "I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand." Here, "I only kiss your shadow, I cannot feel your hand."

And again, "Sounds of Silence," in which communication is lost in "the wells of silence," in an nightmarish, abstract dreamworld. Only here, the setting is a parlor of some sort, and communication just drifts off, time and again.

There are three types of communication this time. There is silence, which is uncomfortable. Then there is the meaningless, yet high-sounding and academic "conversation" about "analysis" and "theater" and the popular poets they are reading. Both of these do happen.

But the scholarly chitchat only serves to break the silence, which itself replaces the third subject. It is that which really should be talked about, only no one wants to. And that's that this relationship is in serious trouble. That conversation is yet to get started.

"We are verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme," he explains, using the metaphor of the poems they are reading instead of talking about their relationship. "I cannot feel your hand/ You're a stranger now unto me."

The silence in "Sounds of Silence" was bad enough. Now, as there, we have "people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening." But here, it is not society at large that suffers in the abstract, but two lonely people making believe to be keeping company.

Why can neither speak of the distance they feel? Partly because it would not be proper. Partly because it is easier to pretend to converse than to truly interact, in the "Honey, we need to talk" sense.

But mostly, because of their basic "indifference" to one another. They don't care enough about how little they care about each other to trouble the silence with a whole discussion about how they'd rather be with other people. Better to be together with the pretense that all is fine than rattle the coffee cups and upset the "curtain lace."

Except that, while they are reading to themselves, they "measure what we've lost." The time spent in this limbo-like relationship is time lost. The passion, the romance, is not there; they do not write poems to each other. And so the conversations start, and then trail off, leaving both of them "dangling"-- attached at only one end.

Lyrically, there is only one jarring image. Everything else in the poem follows the metaphor of things found in a living room-- bookmarks and poetry, watercolors and coffee cups. And then there is the word "couched"-- again , a living-room image-- but one followed by beach images of "shells," the "shore," and the "ocean." Pretty, but out of place.

As to the music, the sound is lush, and the orchestration seems like one of the chamber pieces this couple must enjoy. But once again, the beauty of the music belies the emotional turmoil in the lyrics...

...Just as this lovely drawing room with its polite erudition is, in reality, awash with "shadows," barricaded with "borders," and permeated with frustration and resentment.

Simon explained that he did not like this song because he felt it sounded like a college student wrote it. But it could just have easily been because it was hard to talk about, well, not talking about things.

Next song: Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall


  1. I am so upset that Paul Simon doesn't like The Dangling Conversation. It is so poetic, so perfect and so true. It describes so many relationships of today. He should realise how important this song is to people. It is their cry of anguish. I love this song so much, and I believe it is one of Paul Simon's best songs, lyric and tune wise.

  2. Did anyone else pick up the clever e line "in syncopated time", where Art then sings IN syncopated time? How very clever, it's my favourite part of the song. Paul and Art showed of once again their talent, playing with music and lyrics.

  3. Anonymous: Before I respond, I would like to point out that you have tipped your hand slightly with regard to your anonymity. It does not take a resident of 221B Baker Street to "realise" that you might'nt be from the US Midwest like myself. It is gratifying to know that my work, and of course Simon's, has a worldwide following!
    Yes, Garfunkel's line about synchopation is itself synchopated, and I believe the attached percussion is a bit louder at that point too, to call attention to that.
    As far as Simon not liking it as much as some of his more recent work, an artist might want to feel that his new work is superior to his older material-- after all, he is getting better, isn't he?

  4. If you'll forgive the necropost (just recently came across your blog) I'd like to offer some food for thought.

    I've always heard the line about the bookmarks as "that measure measure what we've lost", with that (I assume) referring to the bookmarks.

    Perhaps my family is odd, but I can think of two types of bookmarks that fit this description, can make literal sense of the line, and might offer a catalyst for the state of the relationship being shown: Prayer cards and/or wallet size photographs.

    At most funerals I've attended, it is common to make available little cards, often with a prayer, or a patron saint, as well as the name, birthday, and date of death. And of course, photographs can make passable bookmarks. In both cases, I've used them to remember someone (sometimes in conjunction with a book I associate with them) and keep it handy as a bookmark.

    While it could just be a throwaway line, I could argue we take one step further out on the branch: The couple reads different books but use bookmarks that measure a shared loss: a child?

    The loss of a child and the heartbreak involved could certainly lead to the marriage as described, and would give one more reason for a "dangling conversation" that they don't want to have. Constantly mentioning things, only to stop halfway in the sentence, because it leads to the memory of painful loss.

    Anyway, pure speculation, but I thought I'd share my pair of pennies.

  5. Brain-- I need to fix my post! It is, in fact, "bookmarkers THAT measure," which implies the bookmarks themselves measure the loss. The use of funeral prayer cards would do that, certainly. Thanks for the catch.
    Spielberg once asked why people would spend a dollar on a bookmark, when they could just use the dollar! Frankly, I think someone is less likely to filch a funeral memento than a dollar bill.

  6. When Simon & Garfunkel performed this song in New York 1967, Art actually said that it was "about their favourite amongst the songs". But perhaps Paul later changed his mind and grew tired of it? Personally I love it, and it's a pleasure to play it on the guitar.

  7. Keith P-- Perhaps it was one of Art's, or more likely the latter. Not so much grew tired of it, but felt it was too collegiate, not earthy enough.

  8. Not liking this or I Am a Rock. Wow. I find both of those tunes to be pure genius.

  9. William G-- Well, if he doesn't perform them anymore, at least he hasn't tried to erase them from his catalog, or pretend he didn't write them. And even if he feels they are not among his best work, you are still aloud to like and admire them!

  10. I always think about this song as a song about depression (clinical or otherwise). And perhaps the response to this song could be this song:

  11. John-- I suppose the person in this song could be depressed, although I don't know if clinically so; I am not a therapist. I can see how his sense of disconnection and his lethargy could be seen as symptoms, but I'd be curious for a real expert to chime in.

  12. The lines "Couched in our indifference like shells upon the shore" followed by "You can hear the ocean roar" is remarkable. Shells are indeed lifeless and empty as is this relationship. When you put a conch shell to your ear, what you hear can sound like the ocean and this "roar" overrides whatever else that makes sounds, such as a nearby human voice. These images again reinforce the theme of non-communication between the couple who are unable to really listen to each other. As to Paul Simon not liking this song as much as others, it may be that he was addressing a painful experience that is still occasionally raw and also he may prefer his most recent "children" (songs/poems) he has written. I've known several published minor poets from the late '60s who take that view about their latest versus earlier works. I think this is one of his best efforts.

  13. Dinilogi-- Thanks for your comment; for the record, the word is "cast" (to throw, as in to "cast a net" while fishing) not "couched."
    And yes, one hears the echo of one's own pulse, not the ocean, in a seashell, although this is commonly believed. I never connected the imagery of "shells upon the shore" in this song to the act of putting one's ear to one, even with the next line "You can hear ocean roar," so thank you for drawing a line I should have seen. I just thought that if one was looking at shells on the shore, one must also hear the ocean.
    But yes, the idea of hollow shells and inarticulate whooshing sounds being images of non-communication does (no pun intended) ring true.
    In the interview I remember, Simon felt that this was the kind of college-age poetry he wanted to grow past. I suppose as you say many artists feel embarrassed by their early work. Perhaps it is to feel that they have matured. It's a shame they can't just be proud of what they did at the time. I read once that a bud's job is to be a bud, not a bloom. So there is no shame in being a bud, as long as you are the best bud you can be.

  14. The lyric is couched. It has more punch than saying cast, saying cast might be correct but then it would have nothing to do with the lyrics

  15. Dinilogi and Anon-- After consulting the Lyrics book and liner notes of the album itself, I have to concede that the word is in fact "couched." I have always heard "cast," which made sense to me, since "cast ashore" and "cast away" are seafaring phrases, befitting the fate of shells tossed indifferently ashore by the tide.
    "Couched" can also describe shells pushed into the sand by water, of course... and a couple in a room would be more likely couched on a sofa or divan than cast there.
    While I have been wrong for some 40 years on this lyric, I hope to live long enough to be right longer. Thanks for the correction.

  16. It wouldn't be surprising if they had been reading the works of Carl Gustav Jung when they wrote this one.

  17. Anon-- I don't recall much about Jung from Psych 101 except that he posited the idea of an collective subconscious. I would say this song argues against the idea, since the couple seem to not be able to communicate at any level. Simon seems to argue each one's preference for a different American poet, for example, is enough to estrange them from each other-- when they could just as easily connect through a shared love of New England poets.
    Unless you meant something else...?