Forever Words: The Unknown Poems by Johnny Cash
Review by Kylie Thompson
Rating: 4 stars
Genre: poetry, celebrity, music
Even if you’ve never heard a Johnny Cash song, chances are good you know at least the basics of his career: Man in Black, stabbed a man just to watch him die type country singer with an eye towards God and a knack for capturing the darker elements of the reality he lived in.
Though it’s been over a decade since Cash’s death, his work still has the power to capture imaginations and minds. There’s always going to be excitement when a new collection of his work emerges, and ‘Forever Words: The Unknown Poems’ looks set to be a must-buy for fans of the Man in Black’s work.
This is Cash in his element, exploring the sublime and the mundane with a deft and loving hand. But to say this is a book only fans can enjoy is neither true, nor fair. ‘Forever Words’ is the sort of collection that you can love even without being a fan of Cash’s musical works. These pieces don’t need the support of a musical back catalogue to work, and you don’t need an in-depth knowledge (or frantic Wikipedia search) of Cash’s history to find something to love here.
These are poems and lyrics about love, life, and faith, written with a cowboy’s sense of place and an almost cynical sense of brutal optimism. There’s an honesty, and a vulnerability, here that people unused to Cash’s prior efforts might be surprised by. ‘Going, Going, Gone’, for example, explores the realities of a drug addiction with heart-wrecking candour. Cash is masterful with his phrasing, capturing the addict’s focus, and the disconnect between themselves and their loved ones in a few evocative words. And that, really, is the wonder of Cash’s writing style. In so few words he’s capable of capturing an idea, and an emotion, that novelists can spend a hundred words struggling to define. Johnny Cash had a gift for capturing the universal themes and struggles in ways that were easy to understand, and impossible to avoid relating to.
What’s beautiful is that ‘Forever Words’ includes copies of the original, handwritten drafts. It’s an intimate peek behind the iconic mystique, in a way. These aren’t perfectly manicured, curated pieces. They’re notebooks, or scraps of paper scrawled with words and stained by life and age. It’s interesting to watch the near block writing falter in the rush of inspiration, to watch, decades later, as Cash’s hands struggled to keep up with the flood of words and ideas.
If you’re looking for a book that celebrates the surety of a happily ever after, this certainly shouldn’t be your first choice. But if you like your poetry with a touch of gritty truths and uncertain realism, this might just become a well-loved addition to your bookshelves.
‘Forever Words’ is published by Canon Gate/ Allen and Unwin, and is available through the publisher’s websites, and leading retailers both online and off.