Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Poem on the Underground Wall

Today's graffiti-drawers wield spray-paint cans and create self-aggrandizing murals so intricate that some of their creations ascend to the level of commercial art (or, post-Warhol, simply "art"). The term is now even accepted: "graffiti artist." Shanghai recently commissioned some graffiti artwork to show how progressive the city is.

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


  1. Mind blown. Beautiful insight into a beautiful poem.

  2. Thank you! I recently learned that this was the subway wall along which they took their photo shoot for the "Wednesday Morning" cover. Many photos had to be discarded because this word was in the shot!

  3. just another insight from a native new yorker:

    i'm pretty sure this is referring to the nyc subways and not the london tube.

    nyc has always had an underground subculture of graffiti artists who would write poems. most famous among them was Jean-Michel Basquiat, aka: samo

  4. Yes, the song is set in New York, but I suppose it could be about graffiti anywhere.


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  6. From Live From New York:

    The first album we recorded for Columbia called ‘Wednesday Morning, 3 am’ has a picture on the cover of Paul and myself in the uh subway system in New York here standing at the uh 5th avenue station next to an iron post. If you know the album then you’re familiar with the picture. What you’re not familiar with is the trouble that we went through in order to get that final picture because the original shots that were taken for the ah cover were taken off the uh picture that you see standing against the subway wall at the platform underneath the subway sign and we took about 500 pictures until we were satisfied with the perfect James Dean shot and packed up the cameras and guitars and as we left the station…I took a glance at the subway wall in front of which we had taken all the pictures for the first time that day and noticed that written there-rather legibly-in the baroque style common to New York subway wall writers was the uh the old familiar suggestion. And rather beautifully illustrated as well. Well we had a conference with Columbia records to decide what to do about this problem and of course we immediately told Columbia that this was exactly what we wanted on the cover of the LP. Forget it. I’m um mentioning this because we have taken a song, it’s now two years later...Paul has written a song fairly recently in London dealing with the uh theme of people who write on subway walls but treating the theme in a rather strange and serious way. The song is called ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’.

  7. Mr. Thomas-- Thank you so much for corroborating the story I had heard, and related, regarding that photo shoot. It has the feel of urban legend, and it so gratifying to know from someone who was there-- Art, it seems-- that yes, it actually happened. Now, of course, I have to get that book.