The laddie reckons himself a poet!
Didactic Poetry and Catalog Verse in the lyrics of Roger Waters
Prior to Meddle, the lyrics of Roger Waters seem largely geared towards flights of fancy, wistful depictions of dramatic locations, and bouts of self-examination. It wasn't until "Echoes" that Waters began writing in earnest about the connections between people or the lack thereof. Whether consciously or not, Waters' verse then began to take on a more Didactic quality.
Didactic Poetry is poetry that is written with the intent of imparting wisdom, knowledge or instruction. A Floydian example would be "Time". The lyrics of "Time" are intended to convey the idea that one's life is always in progress and is capable of slipping away if one doesn't maintain an active part in it. If one takes into consideration that The Dark Side of the Moon itself is essentially a list of everyday pressures which can drive one over the brink, then the album on a whole reveals itself as a larger Didactic work. Often utilizing dramatic devices such as detailed descriptive passages and digressions that examine the subject matter from different perspectives, Didactic Poetry can assume the form of drama, parody or satire. In this way, Didactic Poetry seeks to be more than simply educational; Didactic Poetry can be entertainment, and the lessons put across can be easier for an audience to swallow.
As one example, The Wall not only exposes Roger Waters' personal demons, but it also describes much of what Waters sees as being wrong with the Rock and Roll Machine. In "Comfortably Numb", for example, we learn that while a doctor can be quickly summoned backstage for a person of Pink's fame, that doctor is really only interested in making sure that the show goes on. During the final quarter of the album, Waters uses his lyrics to draw parallels between stadium rock extravaganzas and fascist rallys. In each situation, an individual person commands legions of unquestioningly loyal followers. The only real difference between the Sieg Heil and the Hammer gesture is the context in which it's used. It is still a gesture performed by the leader and returned by the loyal. We should all be thankful that our superstars only want our money.
One type of Didactic Poetry is called Catalog Verse. This type of poetry consists of lists of items which all share a common denominator, often indicated by the title. For example, "What Shall We Do Now" from The Wall features a Catalog of experiences that Pink (or anyone else, really) could use as bricks to fill in the gaps which still remain in his wall.
"One of my Turns" utilizes more conventional poetic structure in combination with a Catalog, beginning with "Would you like to watch TV," which serves as a summation of the various activities a couple on a date can engage in: vacuous entertainment, capricious sex, navel-gazing disguised as conversation, and/or dinner. The last few items on the list describe the various responses that the groupie could have to Pink's sudden outburst of violence: she could call the police, she could beg him to stop, but ultimately, she chooses to run away. It is interesting that Waters portrayed Pink's destruction of the hotel room with a series of questions that bring to mind (thanks, in part, to the film) Pink's actually hurling items representing each possible suggestion at the groupie. Thus, the trashing of the hotel room becomes more interesting than it might have been had Waters instead chosen to describe the actual destruction.
Another example of Catalog Verse, "The Gunner's Dream" from The Final Cut, presents first a description of the death of the gunner from his own point of view, followed by his imagining of his funeral. The next verse, following the saxophone solo, outlines a list of qualifications for Utopia; what the gunner believed he was giving his life for. By the time the final line "and no one kills the children anymore" is repeated for emphasis, Waters has described a place of safety, security and freedom. It is the opinion of this author that "The Gunner's Dream" is the penultimate song on "The Final Cut." It underscores the betrayal of the post-war dream by painting a picture of the world that those who sacrificed their lives thought they were bringing about, while demonstrating that this world has not come to pass.
Even in earlier works, prior to the adoption of a Didactic tone, Catalog Verse abounds in Waters' work. For example, "The Crying Song" gives a list of things that "we" do (smile, climb, cry, roll), and in the fifth verse of "Free Four" begins with the words "and who". "Fearless" and "San Tropez" are examples of the catalog as dramatic action. Each chorus of "Echoes" features lists beginning with "no one"; in the first chorus, the "no one" resolves to "something", an early example of using repetition to show opposition.
A relative of Didactic Poetry is the Aphorism, a brief summation of a fundamental principle. Perhaps the best example of aphorism in Waters' work is the litany of things which is "Eclipse". Culminating in the lines "All that is now/And all that is gone/And all that's to come/And everything under the sun," the song serves as an aphorism which sums up the totality of human experience in a mere twenty-five lines; most of which consist of five words or fewer. Another example of aphorism which borders on metaphor is found in "Run Like Hell" from The Wall. In this piece, Waters again seeks to draw parallels between fascist behavior and that of a rock and roll performer. While on the surface it appears to be about a fascist mob running loose in the streets, Waters also declared in his 1980 interview with Jim Ladd that it is also meant to represent the kind of chaos a band on the road is capable of causing.
It's also interesting to note that Waters' lyrics took on a Didactic tone around the same time that Pink Floyd's albums started becoming themed concept albums. The alignment of these two occurrences indicate that Waters was interested in more than simply entertaining his audience; he also wanted to give them something to think about. To connect in such a way that the message his lyrics impart could enlighten as well as entertain.
Sean Ellis is a seven-time dropout from institutes of higher learning (and quite proud of the fact that he is not a product of an intellectual assembly line), and a staff writer for Spare Bricks.