Initially, I was not very excited by this prompt. Although I liked the idea of working with someone else’s words (I personally am a big fan of found poetry), I disliked this prompt because of the seeming gimmick of it. The sentence I received—“If music didn’t exist”—seemed to point towards a poem that might have already been written a thousand times, I could imagine it in my head, a poem about a sad world where there is no sense of community, where no one dances, where there is no poetry, where part of our identity is missing. If you Google “If music didn’t exist” some of the results include, “we would all become dead silent” and “the level of emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain would build to intolerable levels” and (my favorite) “people would listen to a lot more books on tape in the car.” To me and to these other internet users, the obvious reaction to the hypothetical music-less world is negative—music contributes so much to people’s sense of belonging, community, and identity that imagining a world without it seems nearly impossible.
I know there are so many songs in my own life that really have shaped my own identity--“Annie’s Song” and “Today” by John Denver; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by Etta James; “Tapestry” by Carole King; “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac; “Nether Lands” by Dan Fogelberg; “Song of the Soul” by Chris Williamson; “My Cathedral” by Chris Rice; “Iko Iko” by the Dixie Cups; “My Cup Runneth Over” by Ed Ames.
As I grew up in a very Catholic household, a lot of these songs that I think have shaped me are Christian songs. However, I currently no longer practice Catholicism or Christianity. And yet, these very religious songs about worship and praise and love and God somehow still speak to me and feel very foundational to me. In a world where this music didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be the same person I am now, it seems.
And yet something in me resists that. Maybe it is because I’m a contrarian, but I can’t help thinking that my identity is extremely flimsy if it is tied to something as accidental as hearing a specific song in my childhood. There must be something beyond the music itself that allowed it to shape me, made these songs an integral part of myself and my world.
Looking through that list again, the answer seems clear—each song on the list is connected with someone I love, or a place in which my life changed, or maybe they have words that express a feeling that I’ve carried with me for years. “Annie’s Song” and “Today” both remind me of summers spent in the woods Tennessee (“Annie’s Song” begins, “You fill up my senses like a night in the forest”); I have vague memories of my mother and grandmother singing “Landslide” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to me as a child; “Nether Lands” offers a vision of the world and nature and solitude that I retreat to when I feel overwhelmed. Even the religious songs such as “Song of the Soul” and “My Cathedral” still resonate with me, informing me how I would like to shape my life and treat my friends.
I think that even if music didn’t exist, we would still find ways of expressing history and play in the same way that “Iko Iko” does. I think we would be able to speak of our love of nature and God in a way that is just as beautiful as “My Cathedral.” I think I would have other connections to the memories of people and places that I love besides these songs. I think that a world without music would be just as beautiful as this one, because we would find the beauty and community that we seek in music in other locations.
And I think that my mysterious partner who gave me the prompt “If music didn’t exist” probably understood this better than I did. After all, that is what the creation of hypothetical worlds does; it allows us to examine what we take for granted and imagine how things could be. And for a contrarian, I suppose I'm surprisingly optimistic--I think that the world could always be better, will always be moving in a better direction. To me, it is productive to imagine these hypothetical worlds in positive, optimistic ways. Though my poem might be about sometimes perhaps trivial, this prompt opens itself to imagining worlds where sexism, racism, homophobia and their respective tool kits don't exist. I want poems about a world where photoshop doesn't exist, where guns don't exist, where abortion isn't necessary, where sexual assault doesn't happen. It sometimes seems impossible to imagine a world without racism, sexism, poverty, violence and other problems; but a world without music seems similarly "unimaginable"--and the truth is, it really isn't.
I’ve included a draft of my poem below.
If music didn’t exist we would listen to each other breathing.
I would hear the Ave Maria in my mom’s yawn
and Tchaikovsky in his laugh. As I walk to class,
I would skip to the sound of speeding cars
instead of Ke$ha; at night, we would dance
to the clanging of my heater, and kiss
as the wind rattles in my windows.
If music didn’t exist, a concert
would be my roommate’s shoes against pavement,
alone on her 6AM Baltimore runs, a symphony
would be a hundred people on the phone with their moms.
When it rained, we would separate--
the ballet dancers and classical enthusiasts outside,
for the soft hush of running water; and inside
modern and experimental, staccato on the roof.
We would spend hours in libraries, listening to pages turn,
waste quarters and paper at Kinkos just to hear printers whir,
close our eyes when we shoot fireworks--
what matters is the sharp scream, not the glow.
If music didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be embarrassed by burps.
Exciting new sounds, we would fill our SoundClouds
with farts and queefs and coughs
and we would love the sounds our strange bodies make,
upspeak and vocal fry would be heralded,
“like” would be loved, and instead of singing,
we would attach stethoscopes to microphones,
and let the world hear our hearts beat.