4 Requirements of Song: “Both Sides Now”

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

4 Requirements of Song:  “Both Sides Now”

Poetry like “Both Sides Now” came out of the 1960’s social change

4 Requirements of Song
Judy Collins’ Wildflowers album contained her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”

movement.  Joni Mitchell’s voice seemed simple while it carried a powerful message.

One of her strongest messages came through “Big Yellow Taxi”, hiding a riptide undertow with its obvious ecology and love of trees (Yes, I’m a tree hugger.  The bark’s a little rough, though.)

“Both Sides Now” speaks more universally.  This version by Judy Collins provides us our lyrics:

Remember the 4 Requirements of Song?  Powerful Lines.  Strong Imagery.  Heart-felt Message.  Clear Communication.  “Both Sides Now” achieves all four without difficulty.

1st 2 Requirements

The Ages of Mitchell through Powerful Lines and Strong Imagery

Stanza I = Clouds

Clouds represent childhood, when we had the time to lie on our backs and stare at the lazy summer passages and dream about the places we’ll go (as long as the metaphorical fire ants don’t interfere with our imaginings).  The shapes in the clouds transport us from our humdrum droning days.

Of course, when big puffy clouds build in, they herald rain (and snow in winter),

metaphors for the things of life that interfere with our “cloud’s illusions”.  Years from our childhood, we recall our lost dreams.

And Mitchell’s last line in the refrain—“I really don’t know clouds at all”—becomes especially poignant looking back with the jaded experience of our maturity.  The line hints at how we went wrong:  we didn’t truly understand what we wanted, what the dream required, and what we would have to sacrifice.  When a child dreams of what s/he wants, that child doesn’t understand the devotion necessary.

Stanza 2 = HEA Love

Stanza 2 moves from childhood to young adult and the “dizzy dancing” mysterious glory of love, when everything is possible and nothing interferes.

Unfortunately, life interferes.  “Fairy tale” happily-ever-after love rarely lasts.

Eiffel Tower in the background
Paris Ferris Wheel, from Wikimedia Commons

The glowing first rush of attraction is not sustainable.  Hopefully, more than the pheromone-driven rush pulls together a couple.  Compatibility keeps the love re-charged;  devotion helps it endure life’s slings and arrows.

This persona never gets past the dying of the fairy tale rush.  She gives two pieces of advice.  The first is a light-hearted mutual parting:  “leave ‘em laughing when you go.”  The second is for broken hearts:  “If you care, don’t let them know.”

Broken dreams and bruised hearts build emotional walls that are difficult to knock down.  The persona comments that love is a “give and take”.  Is that a mutual exchange?  Or does one give while the other takes?  When she laments about “love’s illusions”, we understand the reason those relationships never worked.

Stanza 3 = Life and its Changes

How do we go forward with these emotional barricades constructed of the rubble of broken dreams and bruised hearts?

“Tears and fears and feeling proud to say ‘I love you’ right out loud”: only to have our hearts damaged again.  After a time, we guard ourselves from further emotional pain.  “Dreams and schemes and circus crowds”” only to have our glorious plans fall apart.  After several disappointments, we stop pursuing the hard goals.  We don’t give up;  we just turn aside.

And well-meaning friends see our emotional barriers, see our guarded hearts and discarded plans, and ask why we aren’t reaching out?  Have they not faced the same difficulties?  Or did they never dream and just contented themselves with life’s first offerings?  When that failed, they just shrugged and went to the next.  And they “shake their heads, they say ‘I’ve changed’.”

3rd Requirement

Heartfelt Message: Keep Pursuing the Dream

Mitchell shrugs off the judgments of well-meaning friends.  She just wants a balanced “win and lose” life.  After all, “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”

And that’s Mitchell’s truth:  don’t drift.  Happiness and heartaches will occur.  Don’t try to understand them.  We can never understand the magical mystery of life and its illusions.  Just live.

The Poet’s Requirement

Writing “Both Sides Now”

The structure seems simple enough:  three stanzas and one refrain, but this refrain changes through incremental repetition, with each change matching its particular stanza.

Incremental repetition repeats the same words at expected times (the entire refrain, in this case) with a slight change.  The change occurs with “clouds” then “love” then “life”.  Each change represents a different age of life, a clever three stages of life with three wishes for life.

In addition to incremental repetition, Mitchell employs two clever rhetorical devices:  the polysyndeton and anaphora.

The polysyndeton stretches out the first line of each stanza, just as childhood, the beginning of love, and the launching into maturity seem to stretch out:  I > “Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air”; II > “Moons and Junes and ferris wheels”; and finally III > “Tears and fears and feeling proud….”

The first anaphora occurs at the midpoint of each second stanza line with “I’ve looked”.  The sentence then continues with the predominant metaphorical topic of that stanza.

The second anaphora occurs on the third line of each stanza which begins with “But now”.  Along with the repetition and the rhyme, these anaphoras tie the stanzas even more tightly.

panorama view
Clouds, from Wikimedia Commons

Summing It Up

“Both Sides Now” is a clever exercise in the Ages of Man with rhetorical devices.  Keeping it simple becomes powerful with Joni Mitchell’s talent.

Childhood, youth, and adult:  we all have our dreams and disappointments.  Mitchell reminds us that life will perform its balancing act.  She wants us to look at the even-handed give-and-take of both sides;  we gain when we do.

Reality will keep us balanced;  the illusions keep us going.

Coming Up

Still in the works because it’s being difficult (and there’s a lesson for any writer:  if you don’t succeed, switch gears) > > the Rock Allegory of “Hotel California” with a wink and a nod to Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna!” will post in MidSummer.
Before that, we have the occasions of Mother’s Day and Memorial Day and Flag Day and Father’s Day and Independence Day ~ so we look at consideration when writing Occasional Poems.

Join us on the 5ths!