Archival Features, Commentary, Poems

Paul Muldoon: “Between Rail-End and Rail-End”

Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Muldoon is this month’s feature. We’re delighted to present his essay about the differences between writing song lyrics and poems, “Between Rail-End and Rail-End,” as well as the lyrics to his song, “Most of the Time.” Both the essay and the song appear in The Music Issue (Spring/Summer 2007).

Also: Download “Most of the Time” to hear Muldoon’s three-car garage band, Rackett. (Depending on the speed of your connection the file may take several minutes to download, but it’s well worth the wait.)

Download “Most of the Time.”

Between Rail-End and Rail-End

I’ve been asked a lot recently about the difference between writing poems and writing song lyrics and have disappointed a few people, including myself, by reminding them that there may not be all that much in the way of difference. I myself come from a culture, particularly that part of my culture associated with the Gaelic tradition, in which poems are quite indistinguishable from songs. This was the tradition which so greatly influenced Irish writers in English from Thomas Moore to Van Morrison, a tradition of songwriters thinking of themselves as poets and vice versa.

My own view is that the very best contemporary songwriters are every bit as good as, if not much better than, many of those who think of themselves primarily as poets. That list includes Bono, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and the late Warren Zevon. In 2002 or thereabouts I wrote a fan letter to Warren Zevon stating as much and was delighted to hear back from him. We met, and he asked me to write a song with him for his next album, an album featuring collaborations with a number of writers including Hunter S. Thompson and Carl Hiassen. He already had a title for a song— “My Ride’s Here”—a phrase he’d used at a concert one night when the sound of an ambulance siren coincided with his leaving the stage.

I wrote the first verse in almost the time it takes to speak or sing it, “in time” as Stephen Sondheim calls it, pointing to what may truly be one of several distinctions between some song lyrics and some poems which I’ll try to outline here. That’s to say, they have to be pretty much immediatelyaccessible to the listener. There’s no opportunity to go back and reread that phrase one might not have grasped first time through. This is not to say, of course, that the opportunity to hear again might not deepen one’s sense of the meaning, particularly if one’s not familiar with a Yiddish word like mazuma, meaning “money,” or withthe fact that John Wayne’s real name was Marion or that 3:10 to Yuma is the title of a Western film.

Paradoxically, another distinction between many poems and many song lyrics is that once the template of that first verse, say, is established it’s difficult to break from it in successive verses. One must follow through on pretty much the same syllable count, if not the same prosody, as is established at the outset. This was a feature of songwriting I simply didn’t understand, which is why the second verse of “My Ride’s Here” was the most difficult towrite. I worked at it for days while a patient Zevon looked over my shoulder.

He’d already written the music for the rest of the song, and therein lies another distinction between many poems and many song lyrics of which I’d simply been unaware. That’s to say, song lyrics in their entirety tend to be of a shortish duration, often making a shape in the world which, in the case of blues structures like “Toll” or “Twice on Clay,” is predetermined in ways in which poems simply are not, unless they’re pantoums or sestinas or such. So Warren Zevon knew something which I, in my innocence, did not. He knew that this song would fall into the classic AABA structure, with two verses and choruses (AA) followed by a bridge or middle eight (B) followed by a final verse and chorus (A).

This was a shape that figured often in the songs of the masters to whom, after Warren Zevon’s untimely death, I would apprentice myself. I’m thinking of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and, above all, Ira Gershwin, whose work influences a piece like “Most of the Time.” For the moment, Warren Zevon knew that perhaps the main difficulty for those who write words before music is the figuring in, insofar as one’s able, of the mis-sing element which music will to some extent fill out. One’s instinct as a poet is to enclose, to connect, so the main difficulty I continue to have with writing song lyrics is to allow them to be looser, to judge the gap between rail-end and railend which will allow for their contracting and expanding in deepest winter or high summer, which will allow the 3:10 to Yuma to roll smoothly down the tracks.

Most of the Time

Most of the time I don’t get it
Once in a while I do
It seems everything’s encoded
I just don’t have a clue
I wandered through the labyrinth
That goes by NYU
At Broadway and I guess Thirteenth
I asked the way of you

You said most of the time I don’t get it
Once in a while I do

Most of the time I don’t get it
Once in a while I do
I said she’s a cardboard cut-out
An Acid Queen Mark II
You said they’ve built the Thunderdome
Just off Third Avenue
Where in some godawful dormroom
I’d have my way with you

I thought most of the time I don’t get it
Once in a while I do I’m trying to remember why

Tina left Ike
With just thirty-six cents and a Mobil credit card
And Auntie Entity under her hood
I’m trying to remember why you took a hike
The sequence of events that led from Queen’s Boulevard
Through the 1990s to Englewood

Most of the time I don’t get it
Once in a while I do
Your community is gated
All the night guys are new
The patron saint of lost causes
Ihud…Yeah right…Like Jude
Mel Gibson has turned to Jesus
I’ve found my way in you

And if most of the time I don’t get it
Once in a while I do

Paul Muldoon is the author of nine books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moy Sand and Gravel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). He teaches at Princeton University and, between 1999 and 2004, was professor of poetry at Oxford University.

The songs presented in this issue are from General Admission, a collection of fifty-five song lyrics by Paul Muldoon, published by the Gallery Press at

“Between Rail-End and Rail-End” and “Most of the Time” appear in the Spring-Summer 2007 (v2.n1) issue of Poetry Northwest