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.

4 Requirements of Song :: “Wildflowers” by Dolly Parton

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.  Beginning with 4 Requirements of Song, we are shifting our blogs to publish on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th).  Join us to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Wildflowers :: 4 Requirements of Songs

Dolly Parton’s “Wildflowers” is structured around an extended metaphor.  The song itself has a catchy tune, one of the best by Parton.  click here for lyrics / no video available

Music with Poetry = County Music

Country music is the venue of poets who love to play with music, much more so than rock and pop, which may occasionally dip into the tropes.  More than rock, which usually depends on a guitar riff or other elements, country music is known for its strong use of imagery and figurative language.

Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” :: click here for video, a live performance by the Old Master

Kathy Mattea’s “Standing Knee Deep in a River” :: Click here for the promotional video

Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” ::

Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” :: Click here for the controversial video that aired only ONCE in its original, Brooks-chosen form

Dolly Parton is one of the great performing songwriters to come out of country music.  More than any other communication, poetry should speak clearly and from the heart.  Music-driven poetry should also provide strong lines and powerful imagery.  “Wildflowers” fits these four requirements of song.

Strong Lines

The extended metaphor keeps everything tied together.  The persona is a wildflower.  Unlike other flowers, she refuses to wither.  She has a dream she is determined to pursue, so the wild mountain rose uproots herself from safety and security.  As she says in her refrain, “When a flower grows wild, it can always survive. / Wildflowers don’t care where they grow.”

Powerful Imagery

Parton’s imagery strengthens the extended metaphor into a powerful message.

Wildflowers that remain in the safe but crippling home garden die in the sun.  Rather than become strong themselves, which is the nature of the wildflower, they allow themselves to be kept weak.  The sun truly will burn up a plant, but I wonder if this is Parton telling women not to be wholly dependent on a man (sun > son).  She is not anti-man; after all, she “hitched a ride with the wind . . . HE was my friend.”

She presents that men who try to stifle women and women who CHOOSE to be stifled are all weak.  As she writes, the weak and stifled lack a strong independent nature:  The flowers that don’t pursue dreams (weak women) are “content to be lost in the crowd / . . . common and close . . . [with] no room for growth. / I wanted so much to branch out.”

Clear Heart-felt Message

Perhaps her “fast and wild” upbringing caused her to “uproot herself and take to the road”.  Perhaps the isolation she felt in the garden “so different from me” drove her decision.

Whether either or both, she “never belonged, I just longed to be gone / so the garden one day set me free”.

Who has not struggled with rebelling against conformity?

Who has not felt isolated from those around us?

And who of us has dreamed—yet hesitated to pursue the dream?  We hesitate, for it requires abandoning our safety net?

Clear Communication Results in Action

When writers connect to audience through these four requirements of song, their words often provide an impetus for us.  “Wildflowers” wants us to let go of whatever withers us, release the anonymity of the mass blob of the crowd, and hitch our dream to the wind.  We are promised room for growth.  We are promised us.

After all,

“Success is a journey, not a destination.  The doing is usually more important than the outcome.” ~ Arthur Ashe Jr. (1943-1993)