Category Archives: song writers

Songs as poems: Paul Simon, ‘I Know What I Know’

She looked me over and I guess she thought I was all right–
All right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night–
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head

She said, “There’s something about you that really reminds me of money,”
She is the kind of girl who could say things that weren’t that funny
I said, “What does that mean I really remind you of money?”
She said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight
I said, “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?”
She said, “Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”
I said, “Who am I to blow against the wind?”

I know what I know, etc

Paul Simon’s 1986 ‘Graceland‘ album is packed full of these little character sketches and snippets of conversation – and all done with rhythm, part-rhyme, and structured repetition in both verse and chorus. The song gives him the right to a repetitive chorus (as well as memorable tune), but he moves away from a traditional song’s full narrative into fragmented images that give a complete impression – here, an upscale event with two people assessing each other’s social and economic status and relationship possibility, as they talk of Fulbright Scholarships and a previous “cinematographer’s party”. It all sounds very New York.

It is a very extensive picture in a few words, leaving the sort of impression you get from an Alice Munro short story. And it is backed by the chorus that appears to verify that the conversation was real, as well as to state Simon’s recognition of how his mind and creativity work. So the song’s structure allows him to enrich the verses’ pictured conversation by stepping back to be more reflective and philosophical in the chorus.

And as it’s a song, he is carried by melody and instrumentation and can be a little free with metre without it being in any way jarring.

I view songs as a branch of formal verse. But in many ways, as shown here, song can easily flex into areas that are less natural for pure verse.

Photo by Luise Gub

Various updates

I am shifting the focus of this blog to give more coverage to the wide range of formal poets currently writing (especially those who have contributed to the Potcake Chapbooks) and to songwriters who, at their best, are superb poets with tricks up their sleeves not accessible to regular versifiers.

The Potcake Chapbooks continue to be produced on an occasional basis: the tenth in the series, ‘Travels and Travails’, came out recently and the 11th, ‘Lost Love’, has been assembled to be illustrated by Alban Low. Future titles may (or may not) include chapbooks on cities, on teachers, on the seasons, on pets… it all depends on my finding or being sent enough strong and diverse poems on an interesting theme.

I had hoped to have a Christmas-season-themed chapbook out this year, but I am having difficulty finding the diversity I want. Not only diversity of style, but also of content: I would like to acknowledge not just Christmas and Christmas trees and Christmas parties, but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus… everything around the solstice that has given birth to celebrations of the change in the year. (And with some recognition that this looks very different in the southern hemisphere.) Perhaps I will find enough to pull this chapbook together for the end of 2022.

In the meantime I welcome submissions of formal poems on any theme to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com, but I prefer poems previously published: I don’t have an “accept or reject” procedure, I simply hang onto poems I like until, one of these years, I may have a use for some of them. So, as I don’t want anyone getting antsy about a poem not being available for use elsewhere, the Potcake Chapbooks should not normally be your first place publishing any given poem.

“Temple of British Worthies” by foshie is licensed under CC BY 2.0