The Art of The Dangling Conversation - Part 1

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Out of Character

This article is definitely out of character for me, but stay with me. I'm leading up to a point. A half century ago Paul Simon penned the words to The Dangling Conversation. It has since been recorded by other artists as well, but no one has ever touched on the brilliance of the original.

There is an art to writing poetry and lyrics, and Paul Simon has fine-tuned his ability into this song of sorrow and remorse. His use of figurative language stands with some of the greats.He paints with words a detailed picture of a failing relationship - no doubt something most of us can identify with. Somehow, the story takes on a life of its own in this, The Dangling Conversation.

Mrs. Robinson from the 1967 film The Graduate

Scarborough Fair/Canticle - Simon and Garfunkel

It was during the folk-rock period of the late 60's and early 70's that Simon, along with Art Garfunkel rose to fame.

It was the release of The Graduate in 1967 that catapulted them to stardom. The movie contained the hits Mrs. Robinson, and Scarborough Fair/Cantiicle.

We remember songs like The Sounds of Silence, The Boxer, Bridge over Troubled Waters, and others, but few have heard of The Dangling Conversation, much less paid attention to the message.

The story deals with the crumbling relationship between a couple, perhaps husband and wife. The hopes of early life have dwindled into the past and leaves in its place loneliness and regret.

Let's analyze the lyrics to this classic, keeping in mind all the while that I'm leading up to a point. I've laid out the lyrics. Then we'll discuss them.

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The Lyrics

It’s a still-life watercolor
Of a now late afternoon
As the sun shines through the curtain lace
And shadows wash the room


And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar

In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs
The borders of our lives

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And you read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost
And we note our places with bookmarkers
That measure what we’ve lost
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm
Couplets out of rhyme
In syncopated time

And the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs
Are the borders of our lives

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Yes, we speak of thing that matter
With words that must be said
Can analysis be worthwhile?”
“Is the theater really dead?”

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And how the room is softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow
I cannot feel your hand
You’re a stranger now unto me


Lost in the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs
In the borders of our lives
~Paul Simon (©1966 Paul Simon Music)

Verse One

Simon mentions in the first verse that he is observing a still-life watercolor of late afternoon. His description of still-life is fitting as the relationship has come to a standstill. Watercolors in comparison to oils tend to run and fade. The couple's lives has begun to run in different directions and hope fades into the late afternoon.

As the day is divided into three sections - morning, afternoon, and evening, we see that we are approaching the end of the day or the end of the relationship. The evening of their relationship has not fallen yet, but time is running out.

The sun which gives light is partially hidden behind a curtain - the end of the play, but yet the curtain hasn't fallen yet. Shadows of past lives still linger hoping to salvage whatever might be left.

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The couple still share a common habit - that of drinking coffee; we sit and drink OUR coffee. But yet they're both couched in indifference. What could be a time of intimate communication is reduced to neither one caring to take a step toward healing.

They're couched in their indifference like the shells of the seashore. One shell is completely oblivious to the others although they share common ground. Likewise, the two, although sharing the common ground of drinking a coffee, are not connected in any way.

Simon uses the line, "you can hear the ocean roar," and fits it neatly between two statements. The shells are close enough to hear the ocean roar, but yet they are not in the waters that give life. On the other hand, you can hear the ocean roar in the dangling conversation that is marked by superficial sighs and seals off the borders that neither one can pass.

Verse Two

Again, reference is made to a shared interest - that of poetry. Poetry could have been a good connecting hobby for the couple, but even in their mutual interest of poetry they disagreed. She liked Emily Dickinson. He favored Robert Frost. Even though both poets were from New England, their lives were very different, just as the couple's lives had become very different.

Simon uses the symbolism of the book marker to measure what was lost. The intimacy that both needed was sacrificed on the altar of self and independence. They themselves became a poorly written poem of life, not rhyming, and walking out of step with each other. To emphasize this point, Art Garfunkel sings the line in a syncopated rhythm on the recording. Their relationship has deteriorated to nothing more than dangling conversations and superficial sighs.

Emily Dickinson Documentary

Verse Three

Finally, the couple seem to be taking some major steps. They speak of things that matter; things that are important to both and to the relationship. Simon underscores that importance in his line, "with words that must be said." This was no casual conversation, but an attempt to move the relationship forward. Perhaps one or both need psychoanalysis. But can it be worthwhile? The seriousness of the question and the lack of commitment can be seen in the next question. "Is the theater really dead? There's really no meat to this question. So quickly the old, comfortable shoe is put back on. The closeness they both desire fades away.

Now the sun of the late afternoon has disappeared. Evening is approaching. The end is near. She's not there for him. He can only kiss her shadow. He cannot feel her hand as he once did. He must face what he knew all along. Their lives have been lost in the dangling conversation and superficial sighs. The borders of their lives have been set, and they can go no further.

Conclusion

Now, to make my point. I have given you only one interpretation. Ask a dozen people the meaning, and you'll get a dozen different answers. When similes, metaphors, symbolism, analogies, and allegory all come together you can pretty much make the meaning anything you choose. In poetry, that's a beautiful thing, but that beauty doesn't carry over to literal works like the Bible. That's not to say that the Bible doesn't contain metaphors and symbolism. It most certainly does, but we must rightly divide the Word of Truth, separating symbolism and the figurative from the literal.

Recently I received an email from someone claiming the Bible must be interpreted allegorically, not literally. When we begin to take away from the meaning of the words by adding our own thoughts we are standing on dangerous ground. We must carefully analyze Scripture for what it is. We must apply the principles of hermeneutics - the study and application of interpretation. This we will do in Part 2 of this series as we'll compare the figurative interpretaion of The Dangling Conversation with the literal interpretation of Scripture. I think you'll see the difference so stay tuned..

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Comments 10 comments

Lorne Hemmerling profile image

Lorne Hemmerling 15 months ago from Port Hope

I love this song! Almost always brings a tear to my eye. Your interpretation is spot on, my friend.


lifegate profile image

lifegate 15 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA Author

Hi Lorne,

Glad you were able to stop by. That's only my interpretation, and I'm sure others get different meanings and thoughts as they process the song. That's the art of the song itself. We relate how we relate. However, that's not always the case. Some writings are meant to be taken literally and when they're not, terrible injustice will occur. Hope you stay tuned for Part 2.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 15 months ago from Olympia, WA

Really one of the more meaningful and sadly beautiful songs written during that decade. Love the lyrics...good choice of songs by you for a lesson.


lifegate profile image

lifegate 15 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA Author

Hi Bill. Looking back over nearly 50 years, the song still has meaning. Maybe that's part of the art - creating something that will last. As alwaus, it's good to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by!


MsDora profile image

MsDora 15 months ago from The Caribbean

Interesting introduction and I'm looking forward to the follow-up. You always share some valuable lessons!


lifegate profile image

lifegate 15 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA Author

Sorry for getting back so late, MsDora. It's one of those crazy weeks. Hopefully I'll be working on the follow-up soon. Thanks for the visit!


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 14 months ago from The Beautiful South

This " is " different for you Bill and I like it! Will share it everywhere I can and can't wait for part two or the conclusion. We never know what it may take to get someone to listen.


lifegate profile image

lifegate 14 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA Author

Hi Jackie,

Thanks for the share. Part 2 will be up soon, but I got busy with TGAF in the meantime. I'll get working on it. Hope you have a great day!


Tamarajo profile image

Tamarajo 14 months ago from Southern Minnesota

Simon and Garfunkel were a large part of my early music listening experience as my parents played all their albums often. I sincerely loved their folky sound and later came to appreciate the cleverness of their lyrics.

You are correct that the symbolism that is offered in both music and literature is highly subjective from both the writer and readers point of view. This was always problematic for me in high school when we were required to read a book like "Lord of the flies" then we were expected to be able to find the symbolism in the reading. I hated it for the very reason you suggest. How was I supposed to know what the author's association with certain objects, colors, and settings were?

This was why I fell in love with the Bible because of the Author's consistent use of symbols that were not in conflict the very real events that occurred. God's Word uses symbol so consistently in concert with the very real events that I never have to wonder or question where He is going with it.

The Hebrew thought on this is not "either or" as in Greek or Western thought processing, but "both" Both are true. The symbol and the event.

Looking forward to Part 2 and your figurative interpretation.


lifegate profile image

lifegate 14 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA Author

Hi Tammy,

I suppose there is a certain beauty in figurative language that allows each to form his/her own ideas about what is being said. I love poetry and well written lyrics, but they become what I choose for them to become.

On the other hand, Scripture is consistent and has no place for my own thoughts - and it is black and white, or it is what it is. So we have a sure foundation upon which to stand, and that's the beauty of Scripture - and I thank '"God for it. Thanks for making the trip. It's always good to hear from you.

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