Monday, December 10, 2012

Paul Simon is Not Really a Rock

Simon and Garfunkel

If you look at them now, they don’t seem like much; old, wrinkled and scrunched-looking are some accurate descriptions.  But if you listen instead of look, it becomes apparent that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are still about as fresh as they were when their folk duo first formed.  Ever since the 1950’s when they recorded their first album as “Tom and Jerry,” their careers have both skyrocketed, their music became famous and their relationship has been through some tough strains. 

Although “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge over Troubled Water” are by far their most popular and celebrated hits, I redirect you towards a forgotten and underrated gem written and performed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in 1965 called “I am a Rock.”  This song is a masterpiece in both musical and literary worlds.  It was written after the popularity blast that was “The Sound of Silence” in 1964, and when compared, an argument could easily be made that “I am a Rock” is a continuation of “The Sound of Silence,” as the same solemn themes seem to permeate both pieces.  Simon introduces this song generally as a song about loneliness, but a closer look at the lyrics puts a colorful spin on the merits of solitude.  Numerous literary devices can be found throughout the lines and stanzas, many overlapping each other in a mess of poetic genius. Even though “I am a Rock” is about a speaker trying to convince the world that he is unaffected by the heartache of an excruciating love affair, it seems that Paul Simon is using the creative style more to try and convince himself of this unsure image of impenetrability.

“I am a Rock” kicks off with three consecutive splashes of alliteration.  These repetitions establish a gloomy setting in “a deep and dark December” and “on a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.”  This device is effective in the sense that it links two or three separate images or feelings to conjure up specific combinations of phantasmagoria.  Also, it spices up what would otherwise be a boring couple of lines; there’s not a lot of action going on here because the function of this entire stanza is to lay a scene.  Simon does not use alliteration again after its rapid-fire succession in the introduction. 
Amplification is also utilized in the beginning and ending of the song.  He previously states that “I’ve built walls” but then goes on to continue that idea, comparing those previously built walls to “a fortress deep and mighty.”  When using this device, Paul Simon restates the idea of love and proceeds to build upon it in stanza two.  Metonymy is also used when he references his hardened resolve as “armor.” 

The epitome of creative analogies is the transferred epithet, which uses an entirely unrelated word that would not typically be used to describe an idea or concept.  For instance in stanza one, Simon uses the word “shroud” to describe snow.  This is odd because a shroud is a piece of clothing, and usually would never be used to describe any weather-related phenomena.  I’ve last seen it used mostly in regards to funeral shrouds, such as in The Odyssey, which would add another dark undertone to an already depressing song.  Stanza four modifies another noun with words that would not ordinarily describe it, saying “hiding in my room, safe within my womb.”  If this analogy was taken literally, the listener could deduce that Paul Simon possibly found an actual womb to seclude himself within, which is gross imagery.  However, we’re smart enough to know that he’s just using creative style to take the protective nature of a mother’s womb and transfer that same idea to his secluded room. 

The listener gets the general sense that this song is a conversation between Paul Simon and a nameless individual.  Procatalepsis is when the speaker anticipates an objection from some unknown person and responds to it.  This device is used one time in particular when Simon suddenly exclaims “Don’t talk of love.”  We don’t actually know who he’s talking to, but the entire song is almost like an intimate conversation focused on the trials and hard-learned lessons of one nasty love affair.  He is obviously trying to teach that nameless, faceless person to not make the mistakes he did, but as the song continues, it appears that the speaker is inwardly reflecting to himself.  His use of pronouns is indicative as such, and thus the song turns into one man’s attempt to convince himself that he is unaffected by emotional trauma.

If there is one sure way to convince one’s self of anything, it is through repetition.  Constantly Paul Simon restates that he is a rock and an island, always at the end of his stanzas.  This literary device is known as epistrophe, where words are repeated at the end of phrases.  “I am a rock, I am an island” is also an example of the song’s most prominent metaphors.  Generally this song is dripping with them.  In fact, the entire poem is an extended metaphor ornamented with smaller metaphors; so many levels of consciousness went into writing this stubbornly resolved song.  Hand in hand with those metaphors is personification.  It’s everywhere.  The more prominent places are:
  • ·         Stanza 3:  “Don’t talk of love… it’s sleeping in my memory.”
  • ·         Stanza 3: “I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.”
  • ·         Stanza 4: “I have my books and poetry to protect me.”
  • ·         Final Couplet: “And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

Personification runs rampant.  Love does not literally sleep, feelings cannot slumber, nor can they die.  If books and poetry had actual protective qualities, I’m sure they would be more of a novelty to today’s youth.  The concluding couplet states that rocks and islands don’t feel pain nor do they cry, which doesn’t seem like personification.  But really, it is; Paul Simon is still attributing human capabilities to those inanimate objects.  We are to assume that the rock cannot feel pain, but it can experience other emotions and sensations.  The island doesn’t cry, but it implies that it is capable of other emotions. 

All in all, this song is pretty low-key for such an emotionally turbulent theme.  The word selection Paul Simon uses creates an overall soft quality to the song that is enhanced by the soft style of Simon and Garfunkel’s unique sound.  Strong imagery is present throughout; it makes an already relatable song even more so and articulates the isolation and frozen status of Paul Simon’s personal life.  “I am a Rock” was written after Simon and Garfunkel firmly established themselves as musicians.  Its overall function is entertainment and art for art’s sake, but on an imaginative and universal level of understanding.  Extensive research returned inconclusive in regards to what or who this song was written for.  Simon and Garfunkel refuse to explain much of their music due to the intensely personal nature in which it was written, and this song is no exception.  One can postulate that it was written for therapeutic reasons, but other than that there’s no further explanation as to how it came to be.  

by Shelby Phillips

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