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From the Singer, Now a Poet Emerges

September 29, 1989|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Art Garfunkel, whose choirboy tenor added grace to even the most raucous Simon and Garfunkel hits, has long been known as the non-songwriting half of that celebrated duo. Even after he and Simon split up to go their solo ways, Garfunkel continued to sing and arrange the works of others.

Now, however, it's clear the lyrical muse wasn't missing, just delayed.

With his first book of poetry, "Still Water," featuring reflections on everything from the suicide of his girlfriend in 1979 to a mother duck tending her brood in Holland, Garfunkel has offered his audience more grace notes, this time in prose form.

But don't look for him to turn his autobiographical poems into songs anytime soon. "I'm so close to being a songwriter and yet I'm not. To me, a song and a poem are very different animals," he explained recently between bites of oatmeal from a room-service tray at a local hotel. And he conceded that "maybe another part of the answer is that I'm blocked as a songwriter and part of the obstacle may be my proximity to a great songwriter, Paul Simon. . . . I would not enjoy the inevitable comparisons."

It turns out that Garfunkel, 47, did write songs before he teamed up with his childhood pal Simon in the 1950s. And, after he began writing poetry in 1983, he briefly tried songwriting again. Once. He noodled around with chords, words and melody, attempting to "redirect a poem into a song--but in about an hour and a half all the inspiration dried up."

By contrast, he's found the poems have flowed fairly easily and spontaneously since he began writing them during a trip to Europe: "I was on a motorcycle in the Alps. I thought I'd describe the changes in the landscape, stages in the descent from 2,000 feet. . . . Once that happened, I was off and away."

He likes the way the poetry just sort of comes through him much as his singing does: "My singing has always been a gift that has connected me with God. You feel like you're a vehicle . . . and if you stay out of the way and just be a humble bearer of this godly thing called music and just transmit it like a conduit, you can witness its beauty almost as a spectator. . . ."

Only recently, at the urging of a friend, did Garfunkel decide to have his poetic transmissions published. That first poem from the Alps is one of 84 included in the book published this month by Dutton. The poems are divided into four sections according to the elements (earth, air, water and fire) and bear no individual titles.

His favorite is No. 33, from the water section, written while crossing the Atlantic on board ship in the summer of 1984. The beginning of it goes like this:

Some like to use a picture frame to hold the composition. Others are less structured, and deal in intuition. But I am like Nicolas Roeg: "There are no endings," just this bolt of cloth; we stitch designs and then we cut them off and we leave raveled threads dangling . . .

I hang above the barge bay in the last day's sunset. Suds in a hairnet of aquamarine in an onyx ravine between England and France are dancing in the unraveling. I cut a section through my life at zero longitude along the weft, and retrospect on loose threads . . .

Wearing blue jeans and a faded black T-shirt, the artist estimates that he's written 700 or so such "bits" in the last six years--all of which "observed a certain dance of syllables." About a third of those bits were "more structured or poem-like," and, from these, he chose 84 for publication.

"Still Water," whose title suggests that there have been smoother days since the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel mega-hit "Bridge Over Troubled Water," has not as yet been reviewed. Already, though, Garfunkel is bracing himself, having accepted the advice of a friend who cautioned: "I believe they (critics) will have a hard time with the fact that you showed skill in other areas."

Long a professional singer (he was cantor at his own bar mitzvah) and actor ("Catch-22," "Carnal Knowledge"), Garfunkel has taught math to prep school students and made it halfway through a doctoral degree in mathematical education.

More regularly, he has been a pro at adventure, traveling relentlessly almost since childhood, when he accompanied his salesman father on trips throughout the Northeast. He's just back from Bali, for example. And, since 1985, he's been walking across America in stages, as a way "to empty out, to shed the programmed circuitry."

He started the walk in New York City, where he lives, and has progressed through the Midwest. Each time, he flies to the state where he left off, rents a car at the airport, drives to his last spot and then walks 100 to 120 miles over the course of a week, choosing the smallest paved roads that take him west.

So far, he's journeyed as far as Lincoln, Neb.: "I'm at the point where cornfields are changing into ranches and the density of the population is really starting to thin out."

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