“Too Marvelous for Words” by Johnny Mercer is the second (and, I will disclose, last) of the jazz standards from the American “songbook” to be included in the Poetry Countdown. (It only hits #344 on the jazz-standard countdown behind that link. But hey, a lot of those standards have no words to speak of🙂 )
Again, it’s incumbent on me to defend the choice of a song lyric, however standard, as really matching up with “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Fish in the unruffled lakes.” And I do think that “Too Marvelous” is not only Mercer’s best song lyric, but a lyric poem that would stand up on paper through time even if all the music of the 20th century went the way of the mummies of the Pharaohs.
First of all, the lyric just swings, in a sense that once meant the highest praise in the lexicon of popular music. It is perfectly timed, perfectly rhymed, and intricately patterned – while being eminently sayable and singable.
But then there’s the deeply lyrical idea in the poem. Not just that of love, though to love someone beyond words is one of the most venerable ideas in literary history. (“I were but little happy, if I could say how much,” says one of Shakespeare’s in-love characters.)
But how do we convey a love beyond words? Obviously, by using words. But the poetry here aspires to the condition of music. In fact, it aspires to the condition of nature itself, to an animal call that is beyond, behind, and before language: “A love song from the birds.”
Poetry has never achieved a better expression of the paradox of language stalling at the limits of its own expressiveness – and still wanting to tell somebody about it.