Johnny Cash’s music is ideal for Noirvember. With his dark, melancholic lyrics conjuring up imagery in the imagination, he was both haunter and haunted; his songs inhabiting our thoughts with a brooding poetry. Yet there is also something about Cash’s voice that gives hope and optimism, that raises a smile and is filled with lyrical love stories. You can never ‘just listen’ to a Cash song – pop him on in the background as you would a radio. He demands your complete attention (which makes him extremely difficult to listen while working).
Johnny Cash’s voice can be heard loud and clear from every page of ‘Forever Words: The Unknown Poems’, the new volume of his previously unpublished poetry. Cash’s handwritten notes – sometimes neat, sometimes scribbled on bits of paper – all provide a greater touch of the personal. The two introductions offer various insights. While John Carter Cash (son of Johnny Cash and June Carter) adds deeper familiarity and affection to his father’s poetry, Paul Muldoon (Pulitzer Prize winning poet) unpacks and delves deeper into Cash’s words.
With annotated musings, photographs, and scribbles punctuating various pages, the book reflects Cash’s storytelling lyricism filled with every emotion from love to hope and dread. These poems offer glimpses into the construction of his songs, lines later adapted into his most cherished lyrics, and that unmistakable darkness of which he became synonymous. If Cash’s songs are personal insights then this book feels like a conversation.
Some are self-deprecating and humorous – especially ‘Don’t Make a Movie About Me’, written at Christmas 1982 which forms a nice alignment to 2005’s Walk The Line, especially as Cash approved Joaquin Phoenix for the role. Some may say he was a mass of contradictions but these all fit together beautifully: a scholar and learned in ancient texts, a brilliant theologian and ordained minister, well-read and a poet, a tortured rebel whose life was filled with sadness and tragedy.
Despite his tremendous life ‘Forever Words’ is not a big book. It is not the most ostentatious. Like Cash it is unadorned yet deep, intense but sensitive, soft despite appearances, and, naturally, it is wearing black.
*Johnny Cash, ‘Forever Words: The Unknown Poems’ is available now from Canongate.