As I tootled about town recently, listening to Paul Simon sing about the “Poorboys and Pilgrims” going to Graceland, I tapped my feet. But I was also reminded that Simon is not only one of our greatest musicians but among the best of our modern poets.
We know that poetry has several distinguishing characteristics: lyrical meter, layered meaning, evocative imagery, repetitive sound, figurative language – all of which can be found in abundance in Simon’s folk song, Graceland. We can hear, feel the rhythm of the meter but the distinguishing marks can be found in the intricate levels of symbolism and meaning in the lyrics.
I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis Tennessee. . .
My traveling companion is nine years old. . . the child of my first marriage . . . We both will be received in Graceland.
The song was inspired by an actual trip Simon made to Memphis with his young son following the breakup of a marriage. “I see losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart,” he sings and hurts and searches for a cure. But the song/poem is so much more than geographic therapy.
Simon is a musician; Tennessee is one of the music centers of America, Memphis a mecca, the site of Elvis Presley’s mansion Graceland. For this musician it is a song of going home and at the same time, an homage to the Mississippi Delta, the home of the blues.
The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar. . . I am following the river down the highway through the
cradle of the civil war.
About the time Simon recorded Graceland he had developed a fascination of South African music which is clearly reflected in the sound and meter. Poetry critics note the poem/song is also about race and separation: the Mississippi is a national divide between east and west; the blues represents a musical divide between blacks and whites; the civil war the divide of North and South, slaves and freedom.
There is a spiritual overtone in sound and words. The religious pilgrimage to the shrine is echoed throughout, the specter of “ghosts and empty sockets as his traveling companions,” the “falling, flying, tumbling turmoil of life” is considered, the obligation to defend “every love, every ending” leading up to the final judgment.
Rereading all the verses, it is easy to see that Paul Simon refers to the many flaws and errors and sins by humans at large, by this human, this pilgrim in particular, and the search for forgiveness. In the end the pilgrim still holds the hope, the belief that he will be received into grace, into Graceland.
Like all good poems/songs, once we have unearthed even some of its layered meaning, we are never again satisfied to simply tap our toes. There is a deeper experience before us.
— Jonnie Martin