Lyrics – Part 1: Imagery from Paul Simon to Townes Van Zandt

A handwritten draft of "The Boxer" by Paul Simon
A handwritten draft of “The Boxer” by Paul Simon

Lyrics are, of course, poetry. A vital aspect of poetry – and prose as well – is imagery. Dictionary.com defines imagery as “the formation of mental images, figures, or likenesses of things.”

A recent scientific paper describes how the brain processes literary images and delivers them to the visual cortex, just as it does information from the retinas. These findings are described in Distinct Top-down and Bottom-up Brain Connectivity During Visual Perception and Imagery (Dijkstra et al.,2017).

The strength of poetic imagery is that it shows rather than tells the brain what is being conveyed. Showing is more evocative. Vivid imagery draws the listener into the song as though she were watching a film or a having a personal experience.

Below are four short examples of imagery in my Story Songs album followed by examples from four songwriting greats.

“The Poet of Santa Fe County”
I wish you could see the rain drape the sky
And when the sun lights the mesa, it’s like God ’s in your eye

“Boys Town”
We’ll find a horse drawn hack downtown
And head for the break in the high white walls of Boys Town
Nod to the cops in the moonlit door

“Round Road Home”
As the stars bend the light
Circumnavigating sight
We swing in circles
Running down the round road home

“Like a Stone”
The wind blew hard, and the windows shook
And the palm trees sailed by
And the knife drew cleanly ‘cross the bone
Now every rain is a hurricane with one name
And you carry that name like a stone

Here are examples from the masters:

Paul Simon’s “The Boxer

I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles
Such are promises

Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty

Lefty, he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth

John Lennon’s “Across the Universe

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe

Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne

And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever