Elements: Air


~ David Whyte

When the music started, I wondered
where it came from, the low haunt
of an air carried on the careless wind,
the lift of a jackdaw caught by a breeze
from the mountain, someone
was playing the flute hidden by a wall,
not knowing that anyone, anywhere,
could listen in, walking through
the simplest song that seemed to need
the broadest, clearest, upland sky.

I listend then, to the rarest of music,
the one played for no one
Every hesitation and every step
the haunting took across the sky was let alone
to touch its full measure;
every note allowed to float beyond itself
to a world with no approaching end.

There was no looking for the right
beginning, no search for the perfect close,
and no listener but the player
themselves beyond all listening,
so that I felt in that modal harmony
of stone and grass and mountain sky
and the clear view across the blue lake
below as if I stood alone and entire
with a world held in place, as if
memory could be true, and horizons
hold their own unspoken promise,
and that grief might be its own cure.

And in the last held moment before
the music stopped and left the mountain
to itself, and the final, un-final note slurred
into the raptured air, as if the deepest pain
could be a long way to somewhere after all,
and of all things, a broken, careworn, barely open
but listening heart, the one to serve me best.


I love the contrast between the
“careless wind” of the first stanza and the “raptured air” of the final one.

This poem, ostensibly about music, reminds me of another one, ostensibly about the same subject:

Transcendental Etude

~ Adrienne Rich

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.

At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listening to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.

Everything else seems beyond us,
we aren’t ready for it, nothing that was said
is true for us, caught naked in the argument,
the counterpoint, trying to sightread
what our fingers can’t keep up with, learn by heart
what we can’t even read. And yet
it is this we were born to. We aren’t virtuosi
or child prdigies, there are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are,
even when all the texts describe it differently.

And we’re not performers, like Liszt, competing
against the world for speed and brilliance
(the 79-year-old pianist said, when I asked her
What makes a virtuoso?—Competitiveness.)
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives
The woman who sits watching, listening,
eyes moving in the darkness
is reheasing in her body, hearing-out in her blood
a score touched off in her perhaps
by some words, a few chords, from the stage,
a tale only she can tell.

But there come times—perhaps this is one of them
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
we when have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowning the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.
No one who survives to speak
new language has avoided this:
the cutting-away of an old force that held her
rooted to an old ground
the pitch of utter loneliness
where she herself and all creation
seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry
to which no echo comes or can ever come. . . .


The element of Air is endlessly open, isn’t it? Driving home today, alongside my beloved Potomac River, I listened to Thou Dusky Spirit of the Wood, a song about Earth and Air.

What are you listening to?

One response to “Elements: Air

  1. wow. Beautiful. Peaceful. Love these poets and together they create a really lovely space. thank you! (I’m listening to the tinkling of tinnitis in my left ear …. later I will find something better, when I’m sitting still)

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