Song of the Week: “Too Marvelous for Words” by Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer
I remember the first time I heard it. Jo Stafford sang it in Dark Passage, a late 1940s black-and-white movie in which you don’t see the face of the hero, a prison escapee who had been framed for murder, until a risk-taking surgeon reconstructs his visage and Humphrey Bogart emerges from the bandages. Lauren Bacall believes in him, and Stafford sings “Too Marvelous for Words” on the Victrola. It becomes their song. “You must like swing,” Bogart says. Yes, Bacall answers, “legitimate swing.”
“Too Marvelous for Words” is a legitimately great ballad whether sung wistfully by Stafford or Helen Forrest or in a more jaunty manner by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. It’s a valentine to the hero or heroine of almost all songs, “you.” The old familiar words of praise (like “glorious, glamorous, / and that old standby, amorous”) can’t convey how great you are, so I’ll resort to a “love song from the birds.”
The tune is lovely, easy to remember, delightful to sing. There is a shrewd key change in the phrase just preceding the bridge: “I mean they just aren’t swell enough,” where “they” refers to “words” and “swell enough” rhymes with “tell enough.” The bridge is musically and lyrically not only the song’s pivot but its marvelous climax: “You’re much too much / and just too very very / to ever be / in Webster’s Dictionary.”
David Lehman grew up in New York City, the son of Holocaust refugees. He was educated at Columbia University, spent two years in England as a Kellett Fellow at Cambridge University, and worked as Lionel Trilling’s research assistant upon his return to New York. He received a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia in 1978. He wrote regularly for Newsweek until 1990. His books of poetry include Yeshiva Boys (2009). When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Evening Sun (2002), The Daily Mirror (2000), and Valentine Place (1996), all from Scribner, plus two earlier volumes from Princeton University Press. He has edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present (Scribner, 2008), Great American Prose Poems: from Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003), among other collections. A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook / Schocken), the most recent of his six nonfiction books, won the 2010 Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Designed and written by Lehman, a traveling exhibit based on A Fine Romance visited 55 libraries in 27 states from May 2011 through April 2012. Lehman initiated The Best American Poetry series in 1988. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches in the graduate writing program of The New School in New York City.
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