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Joni Mitchell’s 'Both Sides Now': Is this poetry?

Editorial Staff

Michael Lista is the Poetry Editor of The Walrus Magazine. In this series, he examines the lyrics of classic Canadian songs. 

Here, Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now": 

I love and I hate this song.

The lyric from which it gets its name, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now” is one of the most beautiful and brilliant lines in pop music, for my money. The song appeared on Mitchell’s 1969 album Cloudsand it’s hard not to hear in that image the voice of the songwriter reflecting on its own ascendancy; the original record features just Mitchell’s voice, at its clearest and brightest and most high-flying, and her guitar. When you consider those sonic elements, and then think about what the word “now” is doing — here it means not only “presently” but also “at last”— you get the sense that Mitchell is at the cruising altitude of her youth and fame and power, looking down.

However, to my mind, that original version pales in comparison with the other side of “Both Sides Now” that Mitchell showed us on her2000 album of jazz-inflected self-covers. In the 1969 recording, Mitchell’s voice is more wistful, more melancholy than really sad, cheerily heralded by the first clean peal of her guitar. In the 2000 recasting it’s aching, smoky and wine-sodden, deepened and spotted by the complications of decades, and sulking out from behind a curtain of violins. Yes, she has looked at clouds from both sides now—the discrepancy in the voices from the two eras illustrates that she has indeed climbed and descended through the turbulence and tumult of a very great cloud—but she’s most definitely back on earth now, and from the sound of it, has landed where clouds “rain and snow on everyone” and have for quite some time.

If “Both Sides Now” has some of the best moments in pop lyricism, though, it also has some of the worst.

Who can really say, for example, that they don’t cringe at the terrible compound noun fiasco of “cloud illusions,” the thing she recalls that proves “I really don’t know clouds at all”? The verses are composed with strange requirements for internal rhymes; in the first lines the first and third words have to rhyme. The results are the inorganic clippity-clop of “Bows and flows of angel hair” and “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels” and “Tears and fears and feeling proud.” Terrible stuff. Not to mention the unbearable forced rhyme, in the second verse, where in order to make the rhyme of “wheels,” Mitchell writes: “And every fair tale comes real.” Cringe!

But the most loathsome thing about this song, a song I want to love so much more than I do, is that Mitchell takes the spectacular image that anchors the song and lends it its name, and then vivisects it.

In the second and third choruses, she changes the spectacular cloud image, which forms such a powerful and versatile metaphor, and replaces it with rhetoric. Mitchell subtracts “clouds” and in the second verse replaces it with “love” and in the third with “life.” In other words, she evacuates the symbol from the metaphor. It’s the poetic equivalent of a comedian explaining her joke, or of Shakespeare following “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” with “by which I meant to say, Romeo, that I would love you just as much as I do had you a different last name.” Which he does, actually. Ugh. The point is that the inspired image of seeing clouds on both sides anticipates and already contains the spelled-out substitutions she makes.

Both Sides Now
by Joni Mitchell

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev'ry fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way

But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away

I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all