In poems and songs, “images” are those clusters of words that appeal so vividly to our senses that we tend to remember them long after we’ve forgotten the rest of the words surrounding them.
Think of T.S. Eliot’s “when the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherized upon a table,” from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or Shakespeare’s “That time of year thou mayest in me behold/when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/upon those boughs which shake against the cold,” from Sonnet 73.
Or, to bring it a bit closer home, Hank Williams’ “the silence of a falling star/lights up a purple sky,” from “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
When it comes to country music, no one has infused his or her songs with more memorable images than Kris Kristofferson, who turned 83 on Saturday (June 22).
With Kristofferson, you can plunge your hand into practically any of his lyrics and pull out a fistful of imagistic gems. His “Stranger” opens with, “Maybe she was smiling in the mirror/Maybe I was, too, ’cause I was stoned.” A pretty explicit picture, don’t you think?
In “For the Good Times,” one lover caresses the other on their last night together with, “Hear the whisper of the raindrops blowing soft against the window.” On another song about lovers parting, “Come Sundown,” there’s the almost tactile phrase, “And the soft sheets still feel warm, Lord/where she lay upon my bed.”
Ever the silver-tongued devil, Kristofferson purrs, “See the way our shadows come together/softer than your fingers on my skin” in his classic make-out ballad, “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.” There’s more amorous urgency in “Help Me Make It Through the Night” — and it’s just as graphic: “Take the ribbon from your hair/Shake it loose and let it fall.”
“Me and Bobby McGee” gives us such sights and sound nuggets as “I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana” and “windshield wipers slapping time.”
There’s a barrage of connected images in “From the Bottom to the Bottle.” Just drink this in:
“Did you ever see a down and outer waking up alone
without a blanket on to keep him from the dew
When the water from the weeds has soaked the paper
he’s been puttin’ in his shoes to keep the ground from comin’ through
and his future feels as empty as the pocket in his pants
because he’s never seen a single dream come true.”
But Kristofferson’s masterpiece of imagery is “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” in which one seems to be inside the singer’s head — not just being told about but actually seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling and touching everything he’s experiencing.
And it’s quite a list: “No way to hold my head that didn’t hurt … cleanest dirty shirt … stumbled down the stairs … the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken … a daddy with a laughing little girl that he was swinging … somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringing/and it echoed through the canyon/like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.”
Sure, Kristofferson tells stories (such as “Jody and the Kid”) and delivers grand philosophical pronouncements (like “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’), but he’s at his best when he brings us in for a close up and with his chiseled imagery touches all our senses.