The protagonist of this song, however, is both less and more an artist. He is less an artist in the craft sense, as he brandishes a child's implement, a "crayon," and only writes one four-letter word (we can imagine which one; Simon doesn't feel the need to reveal it, and we shall follow his lead. In "Sound of Silence," Simon says that "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." Well, now we know what those "words" are.). He does not create an elaborate, six-foot-high, shimmery, pulsating, neon creation.
But Simon might contend that he is more of an artist because he does not merely promote himself (or his gang) with a logo. He comments on the world around him in a provocative way that, if not exactly profound, is profoundly felt.
The graffiti artist who writes his own nickname on an underpass leaves feeling grateful he was not caught, but full of self-promotion. He thinks: "Now, people will know I was here." Simon's hero here is glad he was not caught, but more overjoyed at the sheer act of self-expression: "His heart is laughing, screaming, pounding." This is the very picture of exhilaration.
It is also a rebirth. The second half of the poem is replete with the such imagery. The subway tunnel itself is a "womb." The subway "opens wide and welcome." Our artist leaves the tunnel to "seek the breast... and be suckled." Before a birth could be a wedding, and the artist, if the one (re-)born, is also the "groom."
The idea of rebirth also is a religious one, and there are two religious images in the bridge: The train's rhythm is that of a "litany," and the crayon becomes a "rosary."
The rhyme scheme tells the story, too. The first three verses are made of two pairs of couplets, followed by an unrhymed line. In the bridge, in which the train appears (offering a connection to the world), all four lines share a rhyme, only to be again followed by an unrhymed line (he declines the invitation). One more verse of two couplets plus and unrhymed line...
Then, in the last verse, we have "pounding/resounding" then "light/flight"... and "night." The song concludes on a rhyme.
The whole time, the poet was in a state of anticipation, lacking a sense of completion. Now that he has expressed his thoughts, he rhymes-- he finds a sense of wholeness.
Our poet here is also an outsider. He hides in "shadows." When the train arrives with its "welcome," he retreats back to these same "shadows." Once the train is gone, and he is again alone, he is free to create.
There are some ironies here, hinted at above. He wants to express himself, but he doesn't care if anyone knows who he is. He writes his "poem" where people can see... but only some people, if they happen to be taking the London Underground and if they happen to look in that direction. He reveals his deepest emotions about the world, but in an entirely generic and cliche way.
How different from Simon is this poet. Simon is a celebrity with a record deal and a large audience. He wants people to know what he wrote. His lyrics are intricate, unpredictable, and lovely.
And yet, he feels upset and conflicted much of the time, at least as revealed in his songwriting. How liberating to sneak into a subway and scrawl some anonymous obscenity on a wall. Not that Simon could (imagine if he got caught or recognized vandalizing a subway), except vicariously in a song. There is a freedom in anonymity (as the Internet has proven).
This song is Simon's declaration that art-- even in its basest sense-- is a basic, essential human need. Cavemen wrote on their walls, too.
Art is essential. Self-expression is worth committing a crime for. The drive to create is completely democratic, present even in this semi-literate semi-criminal.
Does Simon wish this individual would be apprehended, sent to a school to learn the rules of proper poetry and educated in the history of literature? Or is he better off as he is-- obscene and anonymous, but laughingly, screamingly, poundingly happy?
(I have recently learned that many photos from the shoot for the cover of Wednesday Morning, done in a subway station, could not be used. When they developed the prints, the duo discovered they had been standing in front of a four-letter word scrawled on the wall behind them. I can't prove that this song was inspired by that photo shoot, but it would make sense if it was!)
Next song: 7 O'clock News