Poetry Can Make Anything Beautiful – Another Serrat/Simon Lesson

I like to pretend that I am a poet, but even in my playacting I have to defer to those poets who have so much creativity and raw talent that they can make a touching poem out of the most mundane things. Today I ‘submit for your consideration’, two songs, one whose subject is graffiti and the other whose subject is flies. I should point out that while I have states ‘Serrat and Simon’ in the title of this entry, one of the songs is not truly Serrat’s, but is instead a poem by Antonio Machado (one of the greatest poets of the ‘Generación del ’98’). Serrat took several of Machado’s poems and put them to music in his 1969 album dedicated to the poet. Thus, while I learned the song thanks to Serrat, it really belongs to this great Spanish poet. [links to the songs at the bottom]

The first song, which is indeed by Paul Simon, is ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’, which describes an act of vandalism on the Underground:

The last train is nearly due,
The underground is closing soon,
And in the dark deserted station,
Restless in anticipation,
A man waits in the shadows.

His restless eyes leap and scratch,
At all that they can touch or catch,
And hidden deep within his pocket,
Safe within it’s silent socket,
He holds a colored crayon.

Now from the tunnel’s stony womb,
The carriage rides to meet the groom,
And opens wide and welcome doors,
But he hesitates, then withdraws
Deeper in the shadows.

And the train is gone suddenly
On wheels clicking silently
Like a gently tapping litany,
And he holds his crayon rosary
Tighter in his hand.

Now from his pocket quick he flashes,
The crayon on the wall he slashes,
Deep upon the advertising,
A single worded poem comprised
Of four letters.

And his heart is laughing, screaming, pounding
The poem across the tracks rebounding
Shadowed by the exit light
His legs take their ascending flight
To seek the breast of darkness and be suckled by the night.

The story behind the song actually harkens back to Simon and Garfunkel’s first album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., (1964) whose cover features the two singers leaning against a pillar in the Underground. The story goes that several hundred pictures were taken of them in the Underground, but that most were unusable because of the myriad rude words written on the walls. It wouldn’t be until 1966 that ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’ would be written for the album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.

Without a doubt, one of the most lyrical and poetic descriptions of graffiti I have ever read or heard. Simon’s lyrics romanticize everything from the man committing the crime, the rumble of the train, the marker (spray can?) an even the rude word written. He captures the excitement, thrill and even fear behind the act, describing the man’s state of mind, his frenetic scratching and slashing, his elation as he runs off.  Simon even beatifies the ‘crayon’ by calling it a ‘rosary’, implying an almost religious connection between the man and his graffiti, and then goes as far as to call the swear word written (which four lettered word, we can only imagine) ‘a poem’.

The second song I will share today is, as I said, technically a poem by Antonio Machado, however I will post Serrat’s version instead. It is called ‘The Flies’ (‘Las Moscas’):

Vosotras las familiares,            | You, the familiar
inevitables, golosas,                  | inevitably gluttonous
vosotras moscas vulgares        | you vulgar flies
me evocáis todas las cosas.     | remind me of everything [here the Spanish is more poetic, saying ‘you evoke me everything’, meaning, you make me remember everything]

¡Oh viejas moscas voraces      | Oh, old voracious flies
como abejas en abril,               | like bees in April
viejas moscas pertinaces         | old persistent flies
sobre mi calva infantil!            | upon my infant head

Moscas de todas las horas,     | Flies from every hour
de infancia y adolescencia,     | from childhood and adolescence
de mi juventud dorada,           | from my golden youth
de esta segunda inocencia      | from this second innocence
quedando creer en nada,        | accepting to believe in nothing
en nada.                                      | in nothing

Moscas del primer hastío       | Flies of the first ennui
en el salón familiar,                 | in the family room
las claras noches de estío       | the clear summer nights
en que yo empecé a soñar.     | on which I began to dream

Y en la aborrecida escuela     | And in the abhorred school
raudas moscas divertidas,     | swift flies amused,
perseguidas, perseguidas,     | chased, chased
por amor de lo que vuela.      | for love of that which flies

Yo sé que os habéis posado   | I know you have landed
sobre el juguete encantado,   | upon the enchanted toy
sobre el librote cerrado,         | upon the closed volume
sobre la carta de amor,           | upon the love letter
sobre los párpados yertos      | upon the stiff eyelids
de los muertos.                         | of the dead

Inevitables golosas,                 | Inevitably gluttonous
que ni labráis como abejas     | who neither labor like bees
ni brilláis cual mariposas,      | nor shine like butterflies
pequeñitas, revoltosas,           | tiny, unruly
vosotras amigas viejas,           | you old friends,
me evocáis todas las cosas.    | remind me of everything

Who writes about flies? Machado, evidently, and with what imagery! He transforms a normally disgusting and revolting insect into an object of memory and nostalgia; into old friends whom one remembers fondly, and whose intrusions upon one’s every day existence mark  the precious or important events in one’s life. Are they a metaphor for the more ‘unwanted’ elements in life, and how they are just as significant as the ‘good’ ones? Is it simply a literal song about befriending flies? I do not know, nor do I know is particularly important which one you prefer. Both interpretations still carry the meaning about looking at things in a different way.

If anything that probably sums up both of these songs/poems; the notion of looking at things from a different angle, for one never knows where beauty, art, and nostalgia might pop up. Does this mean that everything is art? No, of course not. I don’t care how postmodern we become, not everything can be passed out as art. Can anything become art? Probably, with the right about of talent, dedication and skill, and also, by looking at things slightly differently.


Antonio Machado, ‘Las Moscas’, Poesías Completas (Madrid: Colección Austral, 1936) (Original 1917).

Joan Manuel Serrat, ‘Las Moscas’, Dedicado a Antonio Machado (album 1969) <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hKGvAQjSlc&gt;

Paul Simon, ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (album 1966) <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEEQWPfjv1U&gt;

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One thought on “Poetry Can Make Anything Beautiful – Another Serrat/Simon Lesson

  1. Dinorah says:

    Wish you the best of luck with your blog and your PHD studies. I was just looking for a translation of Machado’s poem for a writing teacher and came across your blog. I also have a blog on blogspot, The Growing Word. All the best


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