Personal Change :: “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell

(The images at the top of this blog are of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the wonderful Seven Ages of Man stained-glass window and one of the reading rooms.)

Many transformative songs arose from the 1960’s social change movement. One of the more powerful poets is Joni Mitchell, whose deceptively simply lyrics carry powerful messages.

My favorite Mitchell is “Big Yellow Taxi”, with its famous line “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The catchy little tune and clever lyrics hide a riptide undertow of ecology and conservationism. (Yes, I love trees. You might call me a tree hugger. The bark’s a little rough, though.)

“Both Sides Now” speaks more universally than “Big Yellow Taxi.”. And the song reminds us that personal change is necessary before social change can occur. Mitchell pulls a Shakespearean Ages of Man with her song, reducing the 7 Ages to 3.

Here is Judy Collins with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, from 1976:

Lyrics are here.

Remember the 4 Requirements of Song? Clear Communication. Heart-felt Message. Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. “Both Sides Now” achieves all four without difficulty.

The Ages of Mitchell through Powerful Lines and Strong Imagery

Stanza I = Clouds

Clouds represent childhood, when we had the time to lie on our backs and stare at the lazy summer passages and dream about the places we’ll go (as long as the metaphorical fire ants don’t interfere with our imaginings). The shapes in the clouds transport us from our humdrum droning days.

Of course, big puffy clouds herald rain (and snow in winter), metaphors for the things of life that interfere with our “cloud’s illusions”. Years beyond our childhood, we recall our lost dreams.

Mitchell’s last line in the refrain—“I really don’t know clouds at all”—becomes especially poignant looking back with the jaded experience of our maturity. The line hints at how we went wrong:  we didn’t truly understand what we wanted, what the dream required, and what we would have to sacrifice.

When a child dreams of what s/he wants, that child doesn’t understand the devotion necessary to achieve it.

Stanza 2 = HEA Love

Stanza 2 moves from childhood to young adult and the “dizzy dancing” mysterious glory of love, when everything is possible and nothing interferes.

Unfortunately, life interferes. The once-upon-a-time “fairy tale” of happily-ever-after love rarely lasts. The glowing first rush of attraction is not sustainable. Hopefully, more than the pheromone-driven rush attracts a couple. Compatibility keeps the love re-charged; devotion helps it endure life’s slings and arrows.

This persona never gets past the demise of that fairy tale rush. She gives two pieces of advice. The first is a light-hearted mutual parting: “leave `em laughing when you go.” The second is for broken hearts: “If you care, don’t let them know.”

Broken dreams and bruised hearts build emotional walls that are difficult to knock down. The persona says that love is a “give and take”. Is that a mutual exchange? Or does one give while the other takes? When she laments about “love’s illusions”, we understand the reason those relationships never worked.

Stanza 3 = Life and its Changes

How do we go forward with these emotional barricades constructed from the rubble of broken dreams and bruised hearts?

Mitchell suggests “tears and fears and feeling proud / to say ‘I love you’ right out loud”. Yet then our hearts are damaged again. After a time, we guard ourselves from further emotional pain. We try “dreams and schemes and circus crowds” only to have our glorious plans fall apart. After several disappointments, we stop pursuing the hard goals. We don’t give up; we just turn aside.

And well-meaning friends see our emotional barriers, see our guarded hearts and discarded plans, and ask why we aren’t reaching out? Have they not faced the same difficulties?

Or did they never dream? Have they contented themselves with life’s first offerings? When that failed, maybe they shrugged and moved on.

So now they “shake their heads” when the persona won’t give up on her dream. Now they say that she’s out of step, that she’s the one who “changed”.

Heartfelt Message: Keep Pursuing the Dream

Mitchell shrugs off those judgements. She just wants a balanced “win and lose” life. After all, “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”

See, that’s Mitchell’s truth: don’t drift. Happiness and heartaches will occur. Don’t try to understand them. We can never understand the magical mystery of life and its illusions. Just live.

Writing “Both Sides Now”

Mitchell’s structure is three stanzas and one refrain. The refrain, though, changes slightly with each repetition. These slight changes are called incremental repetition.

The cleverness comes with the way each change matches its particular stanza. The first change occurs when the white puffy clouds of childhood transition to the young adult’s “love” and then the maturing adult’s “life”. The changes reinforce the focus of each stage of life, three stages for three wishes.

In addition to incremental repetition, Mitchell employs two clever rhetorical devices:  the polysyndeton and anaphora.

A polysyndeton is using more conjunctions than would normally occur. The purpose is to slow down the progression of the line. In Mitchell’s poem, the polysyndeton stretches out the first line of each stanza, just as childhood, the beginning of love, and the launching into maturity seem to stretch out.

  • Stanza I] “Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air”
  • II] “Moons and Junes and ferris wheels”
  • III] “Tears and fears and feeling proud . . . .”

An anaphora is a phrase repeated at the beginning of a sentence or a stanza.

  • Mitchell’s first anaphora occurs at the midpoint of each stanza, in the second line with “I’ve looked”. The sentence then continues with the predominant metaphorical topic of that stanza.
  • Her second anaphora occurs on the third line of each stanza which begins with “But now”. Along with the repetition and the rhyme, these anaphoras tie the stanzas even more tightly.

Summing It Up

“Both Sides Now” is a clever exercise in William Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. Simple rhetorical devices keep each stanza powerful.

Childhood, youth, and adult. In each stage we have our dreams and disappointments. Mitchell reminds us that life will perform a balancing act. She wants us to look at the even-handed give-and-take of both sides. We gain when we accept the balance.

Reality keeps us balanced. Illusions keep us going.

Coming Up

We begin our look at occasional poetry in May. Occasional poetry is written to celebrate or commemorate a specific person or event. In May, our occasion is to celebrate mothers while in June our fathers will be the focus. That takes us to July and the occasion of Independence!

In examining these poems, we’ll discover how to write an occasional poem.

By the time we finish, you’ll have what you need for that awkward moment at Thanksgiving when people ask what you’ve been doing with your writing. You can read them a poem for Thanksgiving—or Christmas—or Advent—or Halloween—or Labor Day. Or volunteer in your local community to write an inspirational poem. Every month has one major occasion, and many months have several. November, for example, has Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving and Advent and Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Basically, though, remember the 4 requirements of song, and you’ll do well.

On the 25th of April is Carole King’s “Tapestry”, a look at a riddling allegory. Then, after the occasional poems for moms and pops and freedom!, we’ll offer up another allegory.

Through the heat-heavy days of summer we’ll look at the classic rock “Hotel California”. The Eagles will have landed.