October 9, 2021

Lennon and Carroll

Today is the birthday of John Lennon. I love The Beatles' music and I love a good song lyric, but I have never really been totally comfortable with the idea that song lyrics are poetry. There is "music in poetry" but poetry read aloud to music doesn't really enhance either form for me. That is odd because in my teen years even my English teachers were using Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles lyrics as a way to get us into poetry. And it worked. I first tried writing poems then and I tried putting words to music with my newly-acquired guitar and a few chords.

I have written elsewhere about Lennon and how critics reviewing his two books of stories and drawings sometimes assumed he was influenced by James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. Joyce was not an influence but Carroll definitely was an influence starting at an early age.

His 1967 song "I am the Walrus" was inspired by Carroll's poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter." 

Carroll writes:

The time has come,' the Walrus said,

     To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

      Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

      And whether pigs have wings.'

"To me, it was a beautiful poem," Lennon has said. "It never occurred to me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with Beatles' work. Later I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy."

In Lennon's song, after the "Everybody's got one" lines at the end, you hear some spoken lines. I found the lyrics online and you can play detective identifying the sources and meaning of the "gibberish" as the song fades out.

Thou hast slain me
Villain, take my purse
If I ever
Bury my body
The letters which though find'st about me
To Edmund Earl of Gloucester
Seek him out upon the British Party
O untimely death
I know thee well
A serviceable villain, as duteous to the vices of thy mistress
As badness would desire
What, is is he dead?
Sit you down, Father, rest you

The first poem we know of by Lennon is "The Land of the Lunapots." It is fourteen mostly nonsensical lines (not a sonnet) and clearly imitates Carroll's "Jabberwocky" particularly in the word inventions like "wyrtle" and "graftiens." 

"Jabberwocky" begins " 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toads..." John's poem begins:

T'was custard time and as I
Snuffed at the haggie pie pie
The noodles ran about my plunk
Which rode my wrytle uncle drunk

Bot of Lennon's books and songs such as "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" show Carroll's influence and even straightforward imitation. Here is a bit of his poem "I Wandered." t

Past grisby trees and hulky builds
Past ratters and bradder sheep...
Down hovey lanes and stoney claves
Down ricketts and stickly myth
In a fatty hebrew gurth
I wandered humply as a sock
To meet bad Bernie Smith

Back in the day, John sometimes was described as the serious Beatle, but he was really perhaps the silliest and funniest Beatle. It is so very much the bad-boy-prankster Lennon that the third part of his song "I Am the Walrus" was something he wrote after he learned that a teacher was having his students study Beatles songs for their meanings. He decided to include nonsense lines such as “elementary penguins”, “sitting on a cornflake”, and “crabalocker” and he later said, “Let them work that one out.”

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly
I'm crying

Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man, you've been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long

Mister City p'liceman sitting, pretty little p'licemen in a row
See how they fly like Lucy in the sky, see how they run

Yellow-matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess
Boy, you've been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down

He did care about his lyrics. A song like "Across the Universe" shows a more poetic rather than nonsensical approach. 

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe

Sounds of laughter shades of life are ringing
Through my open ears inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

In a 1970 interview, he said, "It's one of the best lyrics I've written. In fact, it could be the best. It's good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin' it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don't have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them." 

It is sweet that in 2008 NASA transmitted the song as part of an interstellar message to the star Polaris, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song's release, the 45th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and the 50th anniversary of NASA itself. It was the first time a song was deliberately transmitted to deep space to travel across the universe.

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