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Editor's Choice: 'The Unknown Poems of Johnny Cash'

Forever Words: The Unknown Poems of Johnny Cash, Blue Rider Press, 133 pages, $25.

With Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature, the whole subject of the poetry in American songwriting has been thrown wide open for reconsideration. This book was planned long before the Nobel fell on Dylan’s enigmatic head.

That both poet Paul Muldoon and Cash’s son John Carter Cash were so crucially involved with the result meant that the maximum of integrity would attend to this collection of poems that were written to exist entirely without what Muldoon calls “the boom-chicka-boom-chicka-boom of his guitar accompaniment --at once reassuring and disquieting in its very familiarity.” The big question for this book’s editors and collectors was, to Muldoon “Are we doing him and his memory a disservice allowing [these poems] out of the attic into the wider world?”

It’s Muldoon’s selection from this Cash “attic” poetry that you’re reading here.

He spent Christmas 1982, for instance, writing this poem called “Don’t Make a Movie About Me.”

“If anybody made a movie out of my life/I wouldn’t like but I’d watch it twice.” He’d cut out the “gossip smut.”

And, he says, “Don’t let ‘em drag old Hickory Lake/for my telephones and bottles and roller skates./ Down forty feet in the Cumberland mud/ There’s a rusty old gun that once shed blood/ Out a hundred yards from my lakeside house./ Weighted down with a rock is a skirt and a blouse./ A dozen pairs of boots that made a dozen corns./ Trombones, trumpets, harmonicas and horns/And the tapes that I threw from the lakeside door/ Silverstein and Kristofferson from years before./ Everybody has a story that should be let be./ So don’t make a movie about me.”

And they did, of course, with director James Mangold presiding. Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for playing June Carter Cash.

When your life is what Johnny Cash’s was, there’s no way people are going to leave you alone in your declining years and especially in your death, when you become “the Johnny Cash estate.” I don’t think he’d have approved of all this hauled up from the bottom of the lake but it’s hard for the rest of us not to.

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