Fiction Analysis: Simon and Garfunkel, A Poem on the Underground Wall

I was going to continue with the series on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man but I thought a bit of variety would be good. I also didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into analyzing just fiction because I draw a great deal of inspiration from music as well. At the same time I ran into this song on my Facebook memories from about seven years ago. This song is one that’s very close to me. It’s been a part of my life for a long time. Here’s the first recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s A Poem on the Underground Wall. I recommend listening to the song first before continuing.

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 its silent socket,
He holds a colored crayon.

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.

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.

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.

The first stanza has done a remarkable job at setting the scene. Within 26 choice words Simon and Garfunkel give us the scene, time, tone and character. References to the “last train” and subway closing soon puts the time of this story at night. I love the line “restless in anticipation.” I can’t really explain why. It’s a feeling. It’s a sort of experience I’m familiar with, but this feeling hangs in the air of the station. The line makes the anticipation palpable.

Anxiety, restlessness, whoever it is in the subway, they are nervous, possibly even strung out. The second stanza paints a great portrait of such a character. He’s described in such a way that I can picture him despite having described no physical characteristics. The end of the second stanza bring attention the the color crayon.

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.

I don’t even know where to start with this. The first two lines of the third stanza are oddly inspiring. Not so much in the content but in their execution. In this stanza the last subway  approaches the platform and opens its doors for the man. Maybe the man is supposed to go on to the train. Why else would he be considered a groom in this case (though carriage does provide good imagery with groom). And why would he hesitate? Part of him must have wanted to enter the train. Instead he drew deeper into shadows. Which is a familiar topic in a particular famous Simon and Garfunkel song.

The fourth stanza is simple really. The train passes. What’s interesting here is that it’s explained as having left silently, and that all-to-familiar tapping sound from the train as a litany which does have religious connotations. Which matches well with the crayon rosary. Describing the crayon as a rosary gives it importance. Something is about to happen with it.

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.

It’s a quick flash. With his colored crayon rosary he flashes four letters across the some advertisement page. It’s viewed as a poem. As if the four letters have profound meaning having existing alone. Every time I think of the song I wonder what those four words would be. Natural I’d want those four letters to be something like “Love”, but someone described like that man isn’t likely to write something like that especially in the dead of night. Maybe it’s the opposite, maybe it’s something else entirely. I think that’s part of the beauty of this. They’re letting us guess at what he could have written but any possible serious interpretation of it doesn’t detract from anything before or after.

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.

My thought is he’s mad. Those “laughing, screaming, pounding” those existing simultaneously can only truly mean madness. Does this madness detract from whatever 4-lettered poem he wrote? I don’t really think so. The last line of this stanza, the last line of the song, has stayed with me for a long time. “To seek the breast of darkness and be suckled by the night.” There’s something so apt about it. Seeking darkness for not just comfort but for sustenance. It’s something you have to suckle out of the darkness. The darkness would also have to accept you suckling it. Its some sort of union of man and darkness, which I think, is similar to how some people might feel about depression.

I’m not sure how I did with this one. I really wanted to do this justice. If you have an idea for a book or a song I should look into next, leave it in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “Fiction Analysis: Simon and Garfunkel, A Poem on the Underground Wall

  1. Pingback: Fiction Analysis: Simon and Garfunkel, A Poem on the Underground Wall | Mitchell Toews

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