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Both Sides Now -- Joni Mitchell

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1556) Both Sides Now
 Rows and flows of angel's hair
 And icecream castles in the air
 And feathered canyons everywhere
 I've looked at clouds that way

 But now they only block the sun
 They rain and they snow on everyone
 So many things I would have done
 But clouds got in my way.

 I've looked at clouds from both sides now
 From up and down, but still somehow
 It's cloud illusions I recall
 I really don't know clouds at all.

 Moon and Junes and Ferris wheels
 That dizzy dancing way you feel
 As every fairy tale comes real
 I've looked at love that way.

 But now it's just another show
 You leave them laughing when you go
 And if you care, don't let them know
 Don't give yourself away.

 I've looked at love from both sides now
 From give and take, but still somehow
 It's love's illusions I recall
 I really don't know love at all.

 Tears and fears and feeling proud
 To say "I love you" right out loud
 Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
 I've looked at life that way

 But now old friends are acting strange
 They shake their heads, they say I've changed
 Well something's lost, but something's gained
 In living every day.

 I've looked at life from both sides now
 From win and lose, but still somehow
 It's life's illusions I recall
 I really don't know life at all.
-- Joni Mitchell
Every time someone I know claims that song lyrics aren't really poetry, I
have the urge to sit them down and make them listen to a Joni Mitchell album
to prove to them how wrong they are. Any Joni Mitchell album.

But of all the songs in all her albums this is the one I would pick if I
really had to make a case for it. 'Both sides, now' has everything -- a
superbly executed rhyme pattern (don't miss the internal rhymes in the
first, fourth and seventh stanzas that pick up the tempo of the song so
effectively), a repeating structure that brings out the deeper allegories,
some incredibly vivid phrases (what better description of a cloud bank than
"feathered canyons everywhere"),  a gorgeous refrain (to really know how
gorgeous, listen to the song and feel the breath catch in your throat as the
pause before "at all" stretches forever and ever) and an emotional range
that goes from the almost joking (Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels) to the
achingly lonesome ("if you care, don't let them know").

But most of all, this is a song that even read aloud has a voice all its
own. It's the voice of a generation that grew up too quickly, the voice of
cynicism, the voice of tiredness. But it is also the voice of hope - of the
spirit's struggle to reclaim lost wonder, of an acceptance of one's own
limitations that is both humility and joy. It is at once the voice of our
defeat and the voice of our renewal.

So if you really don't know Joni Mitchell's music at all (except for a few
allusions on Minstrels you might recall) - do yourself a favour and go out
and buy this album* and listen to Both Sides. Now.


*There are actually two albums - there's Clouds (1970) and Both Sides, Now
(2000) - the versions of the song on both are pretty different and make for
an interesting contrast. (and no, the guys at Reprise Records are not paying
me for these blatant plugs!)

69 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Penney Mark said...

There can be no doubt that song lyrics are (sometimes) poetry. The
stuff of poetry is coursing through a very great many of the best songs
out there, in almost any genre you can think of. The best example of
consonance I know of comes from Van Morrison:

"Well, it's a marvelous night for a moondance."

Kenny Rogers, with a chilling little metaphor that you miss the first
few times you hear the song (the full lyrics are replete with wonderful

"And somewhere in the darkness, the gambler, he broke even."

U2-I'm quoting just one snippet of this marvelous work of poetry:

"Have you come here for forgiveness?

Have you come to raise the dead?

Have you come here to play Jesus

To the lepers in your head?"

One more example: Cole Porter, demonstrating that his talent for rhyming
can actually make a sad song sadder.

"When you're near there's such an air of spring about it

I can hear a lark somewhere begin to sing about it

There's no love song finer

But how strange the change from major to minor

Every time we say goodbye.

I could go on and on. But the thing is that song lyrics are only
sometimes poetry. More often than not, they're just there to "fit" or
"serve" the music. What the music supplies is intangible and (by
definition) cannot be put into words. As a result, when you're looking
at song lyrics, you're looking at half a work of art; there's no reason
to suppose that that half can necessarily stand on its own. Consider
this Guns and Roses number:

"I used to do a little but the little wouldn't do it

So the little got more and more

Just keep trying to get a little better

Said a little better than before."

Not a great poem. But it goes very, very well with the song (which is
about cocaine addiction) because it fits the frenetic pace of the song
so perfectly, and that frenetic pace, the driving urgency, in turn fits
the subject of the poem. You can tell from this excerpt that the song
is rapid (you cannot read it slowly without doing violence to it) but it
doesn't actually become effective as art until you've got the music to
go with it.

So yes, song lyrics are sometimes poetry. Sometimes they're just
lyrics, meaningless (or less meaningful) without the songs they refer
to. But it's generally true that one mark of a great song is that the
lyrics can stand on their own (but the music still enhances them


TJ said...

And don't forget the album Blue with 'The Last Time I Saw Richard'. It
was phenomenal:

"The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate
Something cynical and drunken, boring someone in some dark cafe

You laugh he said you think you're immune
Go look at your eyes they're full of moon
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies pretty lies
When you gonna realise they're only pretty lies
Only pretty lies just pretty lies"

Adam Donovan said...

Aseem: Thank you for reminding me that this magical, acheing song is also poetry of a high order. I have turned on a lot of people to the later album from 2000. Hearing the age in her voice makes the whole experience of it so much more poignant and personal; she takes us back to those days-who were we then, what were we after, what did we want, what do we still want, maybe? The whole thing is so fragile, ironic, redolent of another time. It gets me every time I hear it. Thank you.

Lxlymndza said...

The earlier lyrics of Natalie Merchant have always struck me as poetic.

We are the roses in the garden. Beauty with thorns beneath our leaves.
To pick a rose you ask your hand to bleed.

What is the reason for having roses when your blood is shed carelessly.
It must be for something more than vanity....

Time in Eden

Shaun Oliver said...

actually, if I remember correctly the conscription was based on year of

InaLoop said...

Heard the song for the first time 15 minutes back. Well, What a beautiful Song :). Made me remember the good times as well as bad and somehow just felt, this sense of calm which I needed for a while.

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