Johnny Cash: Inside the Country Legend's Forgotten Poetry

A new book, 'Forever Words: The Unknown Poems,' collects 41 of the singer's compositions

A new book assembles the poetry of Johnny Cash. Credit: Paul Natikin/WireImage

While the legend of Johnny Cash is heavily steeped in the five decades worth of songs that he wrote, recorded and performed via his unmistakable boom, the Man in Black was also an incredibly productive poet who was just as happy to let his pen do the talking. The new book Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, out now, assembles 41 examples of Cash's poetry.

"My father was a very prolific writer and he left behind a huge body of unpublished work," says John Carter Cash, who manages his famous family's multiple creative estates. "Out of about 200 or so pieces, there were around 50 finished poems that were really cohesive, powerful and beautiful."

With the help of author Paul Muldoon, Cash pored over his father's vast catalog of unreleased material to find the pieces that both resonated the deepest and felt most complete. Their combined efforts resulted in a rich collection of poems written by Cash throughout his life, from the fresh-faced wisdom of his 12-year-old self in 1944 ("The Things We're Frightened At") to a wistful remembrance jotted down just weeks before his death in 2003 ("Forever").

"Along with the music, there is a large part of my father's legacy that has to do with what he had to say," says Cash. "What he believed in, what he stood for, the understanding of his own darkness, the faith that he had that drove him, and the great love that he had for people. All of these things are present here in this collection of his written works."

In fact, it is the successful showcasing of the many multitudes that co-existed within Cash's storied life that makes the poems in Forever Words feel so fresh and genuine. Love, mortality, addiction, humor, spirituality, pain, wonder, hope, heartbreak, freedom and resignation all weave in and out of Cash's poetry – just as they did in his songs – in an attempt to paint the most accurate portrait of his true self. For the younger Cash, this "warts and all" approach also provides for an undeniably personal connection: "When I read these poems, it's as if my father is speaking to me again."

Adding to the humanity already present in the poetry of Forever Words, Cash also sprinkled reproductions of many of his father's original handwritten drafts throughout the book. Grade-school penmanship is deliberately plotted out on a weathered piece of ruled notebook paper in the words of "The Things We're Frightened At." "I'm Comin', Honey" captures hastily scrawled lines feverishly jotted down on a sheet of Delta Airlines in-flight stationary. And whimsical margin doodles accompany the playful text to "Don't Make a Movie About Me." 

"Seeing my father's handwriting puts me in contact with the man he was at each stage of his life," says Cash. "His handwriting could change due to things like his age, his physical health, his struggles with addiction, or his frame of mind at certain times. For example, if you look at a poem like 'Going, Going, Gone,' it's very carefully written out because he was at a period in his life in the early 1990s where he was very hyper-focused."

Cash fondly remembers his father's affection for poetry and his respect for the power of direct, simplified language. "One of his greatest poetic influences was Edna St. Vincent Millay who wrote 'Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' which my father recorded a recitation of on his first Christmas album." Cash also adds two other names to his father's list of inspirations, English poet William Blake and Paul the Apostle: "My father's favorite poem was probably 'Love is patient, love is kind.' It's simply stated but pretty profound. That's how my dad wrote."

Much like the Man in Black himself, the poems found in Forever Words will not be contained to just one creative medium. "We're also doing an album around this project," Cash announces. "I've already recorded Chris Cornell, Jamey Johnson, T Bone Burnett, Dailey & Vincent, Brad Paisley and Jewel. Each of these artists have taken a poem and put it to their own music. We're right in the middle of that project and plan to have it done by early next year."

While the anticipated album is still in its infancy, Cash can't help but gush a bit about how it's already shaping up. "Dailey & Vincent do a spot-on bluegrass gospel number and Cornell's track is so powerful and gut-wrenching," he says.

The Soundgarden singer recording a Cash original provides an interesting echoed response to Cash's cover of the Cornell-penned "Rusty Cage" that appears on his 1996 album Unchained, which celebrated its 20-year anniversary earlier this month.

When pressed for a favorite poem from Forever Words, Cash quickly gives a few off-the-cuff recommendations. "I love 'Spirit Rider' and think it's very strong. It seems like it might've possibly been written to be a song, but I'm not completely sure," he shares. "I also love 'California Poem' for its focus on separation and life's struggle between people groups. There's just so much there in those few words."

"Then there's 'Forever,'" Cash continues, recalling his father's later years when his health was poor. Despite suffering through some of the greatest trials of his life – including the loss of his wife June Carter Cash – the Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member continued to set aside time for the blank page. John Carter Cash says he remembers his dad, even with his eyesight failing, always carrying a notebook.

"He wrote letters to my mother. Some were hopeful and loving and tender, while others were full of angst and sadness and loss. In the four months after my mother passed away, while my dad was still living, sometimes it seemed as if the darkness was winning in his heart," says Cash, who finally settles on "Forever" as his favorite entry in the book.

"In the midst of his suffering and his loss, there stood these words from 'Forever' that speak of an enduring legacy of hope and the idea that the good that he had spread in life would continue. He's saying there's a light at the end of the tunnel – and it's not necessarily a train that's coming."