4 Requirements of Song :: “Paper Cup”

We’re shifting to the Fifths!

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Starting with 4 Requirements of Song, 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: Paper Cup

In the 3/15 blog on Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers”, I noted the 4 Requirements of Song:  poetry should 1] speak clearly and 2] from the heart.  Music-driven poetry should also provide 3] strong lines and 4] powerful imagery.

Jimmy Webb’s 1967 “Paper Cup” fulfills these 4 requirements that elevate poetry over types of communication.

Strong Lines

The extended metaphor in Webb’s poem presents a narrowed little world into which we cage ourselves.  This world satisfies us with a shower stall, running water, a den, and refrigerated air, bland walls that make our lives easy.

Then Webb turns this life around with its bleached, waxed-paper world.  We may thing we’re in the catbird’s seat, but one day we’re “going down the drain” and won’t care, for we have so deadened ourselves to reality that we “feel no pain”.  We find “life is kind of / groovy in the gutter”.

Powerful Imagery

Webb tells us that such a life has no purpose;  we are living “without a rudder”.  We follow the currents of life and never stop to consider what we want, what truth is.  The mass declares what is popular and “hot”, and we follow, rat-like, behind the pied piper crowd.

Heart-felt Speech

The Matrix should have awakened us to those myriad things that the mass provides us to keep us distracted from anything higher than mundane existence: drugs, sex, blingy rat-race materialism, taxes, insurance—all the things we worry about instead of the IDEAS and SOULS we should care about >> Click here for “The Matrix” and the Cave, a five-minute precis on the film’s philosophic underpinnings, especially Plato’s anti-materialism.

Webb is preaching to us, much as Tyler Perry does with his Madea films.

Madea preaches that people can make us miserable only if we choose to let them do so.

Webb tells us that we may claim freedom, we may shout Freedom!, but all those material possessions just put us in a bland round cage.  We are “always looking up” since our lives are nothing extraordinary.

Politics of Poetry

As Percy Shelley said, “Poetry is a mirror” reflecting life.  By presenting life, it “awaken[s] and enlarge[s] the mind . . . [to] a 1,000 unapprehended combinations of thought.”

Webb wants us to reflect on what we think life should be by comprehending how bleached-out and bland such a life is.  Like Dolly Parton’s “lost in a crowd” Wildflowers, too afraid to pursue their goals, Webb reminds us that a boring constricted life focused on things is no more than living in a gutter.

A better world is available to us.  Webb points out to us the problems of merely existing in a mundane world, with distractors that keep us on the rat-race wheel.

  • Ha! The wheel in the rat’s cage can be turned sideways to be a round cup that imprisons us.  At least the rat can look through his bars.

Parton’s “Wildflowers” tells us how we can escape that “common and close” existence.  Never forget that we must uproot ourselves from gardens where we will wither and hitch a ride with the wind.  

We have to act to achieve.