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The Art of The Dangling Conversation - Part 1
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.
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
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
Yes, we speak of thing that matter
With words that must be said
Can analysis be worthwhile?”
“Is the theater really dead?”
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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..