Like Water, Music

el agua . . .
no se consume como el fuego sangriento
no se convierte en polvo ni en ceniza

—Pablo Neruda, “Fin de fiesta, VIII”


Like water, music neither consumes as a fire does
nor transforms to dust and ash.

Resembling water in one of its states,
a cantata can drift through air
though unlike water, a hymn cannot in any configuration
be channeled across a landscape

despite how both music and water
may be harnessed to generate a desired effect
while retaining a pristine form.


Water is older than music’s earthly home.
Yet the art is ancient enough:
our bodies are mostly water
like the planet
and melody was taught to each of us in the womb
by a young woman’s heart.

Indeed, the human throat and mouth
are shaped as much for music
as for any other utterance. Sung words
were perhaps coincident with speech
—one thinks of those stutterers
who nonetheless can mellifluously

When winter fog
hovers over white fields here, shelves of ice
materialize at the edges of the rivulets and creeks
that thread out of the mountainside spruce and cedar forest.

So, too, fingers absently strumming guitar strings,
or an ear that absorbs a sequence of heard or
imagined sounds, or a hand scribing time-signature changes
onto a sheet of lined staves
are transubstantiated
by a mind into harmonies, contrapuntal rhythms, ballads

while above the ridges
float enormous clouds
—vast reservoirs of future music.

Questions and Answers

Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. books, film, art, websites)?

In my opinion, the most useful resource for a young (or new) poet—a resource that I draw on constantly—is to read poems and to attend public readings by as wide a variety of published authors as possible. By reading poems, I mean you should be reading published collections of poetry by a single author (that is, not an anthology of poems by various writers), and reading all the poems in a given current issue of a literary magazine (that is, a magazine that specializes in publishing contemporary poetry and fiction). The goal is to read as a writer does, rather than to read for pleasure.

If you’re bored with a poem you’re reading, ask yourself why. Is the author’s choice of words an obstacle to your enjoyment of the poem (too difficult, obscure, clichéd, etc.)? Or does the poet’s employment of certain nouns, verbs, modifiers keep the writing lively and engaging for you? Does the form the poet has chosen enhance your pleasure in reading the poem? Or does the form represent an obstacle to your interactions with the poem—does the poet’s use of fractured grammar, for instance, make the poem difficult of access for you, or do you enjoy puzzling out what the poem means? Do you find the line breaks make the poem too choppy, or does a solid “tower” of print without a stanza break cause the poem to seem intimidating? Or does the poem’s structure—its metre, rhymes (if the poem uses rhyme), and/or the poem’s line- and stanza breaks, and/or its use of line and stanza indents—contribute to your delight with the piece.? Do you find the poem’s subject matter doesn’t interest you? Or does the subject fascinate you? Repel you?

By paying constant attention to your responses to the poem, and figuring out why you react as you do (beyond saying to yourself or others simply “that sucks” or “that’s cool,” without taking the time and making the mental effort to discover the cause of your response), you will be teaching yourself what to adopt and what to avoid in your own writing. Following the same procedure of launching a close analysis of your reaction to a poem performed by a published author at a reading will likewise enable you to constantly add to your understanding and eventual mastery of the poetic art. A reading that you find boring or dumb can teach you much about what to adopt or avoid in your own poems, and in your own oral presentation of your writing. If you’re dazzled by someone’s poem at a reading, is the art involved theatrical or literary, or is your appreciation of the poem due to a successful employment of a combination of theatrical and poetic arts? What specific theatre skill(s) or literary compositional choice(s) lead you to conclude the poem is a success?

Of course, paying such close attention to poetry on the page or the stage in order to garner knowledge that you can apply to your own writing is hard work. But mastering any art form is hard work. Your family and friends will always tell you how good your writing (or your music or whatever art you practice) is (at least, they’ll tell you that to your face). But if you want your writing to be meaningful to a wider circle than the people who know you, there is much to learn. Formal education is one route to mastery. But authors whose writing endures spend their lives learning positive and negative lessons from the writing they encounter written by others.

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

For some time now, I’ve been interested in writing about music’s impact on my life. Mine is the first generation in human history to have the opportunity to carry with us wherever we go music performed by others that we delight in hearing. People born now take for granted the ability to listen to such music anywhere on demand. But when I was born, people had to make their own music (group singing was part of every party, Scout troop, school, public meeting) if they wanted to hear something they enjoyed. Or else they had to abide by the musical choices of whoever was broadcasting on the radio, or had to be in a place with access to both a record player and recordings of certain music they wanted to listen to, or had to be in a café where there was jukebox that offered for sale the music they wanted to hear.

How has living surrounded by music we love that we can hear anywhere at any time affected us? A series of poems I’ve been writing, including “Like Water, Music,” has mused on the various dimensions of this question.

One source of inspiration for me as a writer has been the poems in English translation of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1971. I had been rereading some Neruda, and in a sequence called “Party’s End” he says, as the opening couplet of my poem repeats, that water doesn’t consume things the way a blaze does, nor does water transform things to dust and ash. Neruda often directs his fierce attention to the objects of this world in this way, turning the objects (like fire and water) over and over in his mind to comprehend and write about aspects of them we either take for granted or have never noticed or ignore.

Since I was in the mood to think about music, it struck me when I read Neruda’s comparison between water and fire that to add music to the comparison would be interesting. That launched the poem for me: comparing music (rather than fire) to water. Of course, there’s more to say with regard to that comparison than what I cover here. But the poem contains the thoughts and feelings that sprang first to mind. Because I was writing the poem during one of our West Kootenay winters, the fog (suspended water droplets, after all) that materializes over meadows and fields in our area makes a cameo appearance in my poem. As do the ridges that in this part of B.C. hem in the valleys we live at the bottom of. Also in the poem is the winter cloud cover that can hang over us for weeks. The latter can put me and my neighbors in a melancholy mood, for which one cure is always music. But the latter fact is the subject of a different poem in my series.

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