The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sound of silence.
~Paul Simon, Sound of Silence, written in February 1964
|A Poem in Four Letters, 24x29, oil on canvas over panel|
Thank you stranger, for writing, in 1964, those four letters on the NYC 5th Ave subway station wall. Those letters inspired the penning of Simon’s song and circuitously, 50 years later, my painting, A Poem in Four Letters.
Here’s the inspiration timeline:
-In 1964 a wall writer slashes a four letter word on a subway wall in NYC at the 5th Avenue station.
-Simon and Garfunkel have a photo shoot with the poem in evidence in the background for their ‘Wednesday Morning, 3 am’ (1964) album cover.
-In 1966, Paul Simon’s writes and records, with Art Garfunkel, Poem on the Underground Wall.
-I fall in love with the song sometime in the late 1970’s.
-In 2003 my daughter hears the song for the first time and thinks the four letter word poem is love. That moment sticks with me.
-In 2014, I paint Poem in Four Letters about my model’s alter ego, the song and my daughter’s reaction to it.
A question I enjoy asking people ever since doing my Incognito Project painting series and book about it, is Who is your alter ego?
A friend and favorite model wanted to be portrayed as a graffiti artist. He and I discussed various ideas as to what he should be painting.
I knew that I wanted the message to be something up lifting. After hours spent googling, I realized that there are many visual symbols for hate, but not a singular one that was synonymous with love. That was a sad revelation to me.
During all this cogitating about graffiti artists and wall writers, I thought of a little gem is a song, Poem on the Underground Wall by Simon and Garfunkel.
Here Paul Simon’s poetic and musical genius is at full throttle. He sets the stage, using guitar licks that mimic wheels of subway cars rattling on tracks, rich visual language, and religious symbols with great purpose. The music and lyrics firmly ground us in the sights, sounds, and emotions of the scene unfolding.
In poetic language, he captures the furtive nature of the vandal; the dark and mystical recesses of the subway.
The last train is nearly due,
The underground is closing soon,
And in the dark deserted station,
Restless in anticipation,
A man waits in the shadows.
His restless eyes leap and scratch,
At all that they can touch or catch,
And hidden deep within his pocket,
Safe within it's silent socket,
He holds a colored crayon.
Simon chooses language with religious connotations; we can see and feel how the man is worrying at the crayon from it’s description as a rosary. With suggestions of a fairytale, the subway car is a carriage and the man becomes a groom.
Now from the tunnel's stony womb,
The carriage rides to meet the groom,
And opens wide and welcome doors,
But he hesitates, then withdraws
Deeper in the shadows.
And the train is gone suddenly
On wheels clicking silently
Like a gently tapping litany,
And he holds his crayon rosary
Tighter in his hand.
And then there's the act itself.
Now from his pocket quick he flashes,
The crayon on the wall he slashes,
Deep upon the advertising,
A single worded poem comprised
Of four letters.
We experience the the exhilaration of the man, his act complete, as he flees into the comforting arms of night.
And his heart is laughing, screaming, pounding
The poem across the tracks rebounding
Shadowed by the exit light
His legs take their ascending flight
To seek the breast of darkness and be suckled by the night.
One of the great joys of my life is sharing profound art with my children and watching them experience it for the first time. I remembered the day we played Poem for my daughter when she was in middle school.
To my delight, when the song was over she said, "Did he write love?” That revealed much about my daughter.
I wondered about the origins of the song and did a little sleuthing. It was on the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme album of 1966. I found this clip from a 1966 interview with Art Garfunkel on Live From New York:
“The first album we recorded for Columbia called ‘Wednesday Morning, 3 am’ (1964) has a picture on the cover of Paul and myself in the subway system in New York here standing at the 5th avenue station next to an iron post…
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… it’s now two years later...Paul has written a song fairly recently in London dealing with the 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’.”
What I think is so interesting about Garfunkel’s words is how the experience had been bubbling around in Paul Simon’s head for 2 years, finally emerging as this wonderful little song. The wall writer had inspired him. That's how inspiration works for me, percolating over time.
I found this video of Simon and Garfunkel performing the song when it was just a few months old. Enjoy.