Carolyn Kizer

A Muse of Water by Carolyn Kizer

‘A Muse of Water’ by Carolyn Kizer is a unique poem that places women as a force of nature, like water, that men attempt to control, redirect, and oppress.

‘A Muse of Water’ by Carolyn Kizer is a free verse poem that creates a deep, meaningful analogy between water and women, both of which have been oppressed by men.

Through the lens of both water and women, Kizer creates an argument that men must atone for the oppression that they impose on femininity and nature. 

‘A Muse of Water’ comes from Kizer’s award-winning book, Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000.


The first-person plural speaker in ‘A Muse of Water’ equates women with water as it simultaneously analyzes how man attempts to control femininity and nature. 

The speaker’s identity is vague and elusive throughout this poem, just like water. However, she seems to represent both women and water. The voice of the speaker argues that water and women are both servants and gods to man. 

The poem opens with the speaker comparing women to handmaidens of a water goddess that they can rarely catch a glimpse of. She also compares women to cup-bearers who live to create and serve their children. 

Next, she compares women to ships, as they protect men from nature and accommodate them. Finally, she compares women to swans, who appear beautiful and graceful on the surface. Still, underneath it all, the women and swans must work very hard to stay afloat. 

In stanza five, the speaker addresses mankind as “Masters of civilization,” who, once they moved out of caves, started creating devices and structures to control water and women. 

The speaker explains to men that they have oppressed and offended the feminine, liquid part of nature by creating channels, tunnels, piers, dams, and other structures. As a result, the water, and women, have gone underground and rarely risen to the surface.  

The speaker closes the poem by advising men to appreciate any glimpse of water they may see. She tells men to recognize that the water must tolerate a damaged ecosystem any time it rises to the surface.

The speaker also recommends that men go to the beach, where the water is still deep enough to drown. This allusion to Mary Magdalene and baptism implies that men must sacrifice their egos for both women and water to become free.


The main themes in ‘A Muse of Water’ by Carolyn Kizer are feminism, creation and destruction, and man vs nature. 

Analyzing the ties between women and water, Kizer presents a feminist argument that exposes the ways in which men suppress women. Like water, men have redirected, channeled, suppressed, and changed women. She argues that, under the current model of civilization, women are merely servants who bear children, accommodate men, and work to keep their families afloat. 

In furtherance of these feminist themes, Kizer places women as the creators who sustain and create life. On the other hand, men are a destructive, fire-like force that consumes nature. 

The theme of man vs. nature is very explicitly man vs. nature. In this poem, man takes advantage of water, plants, and women by destroying, controlling, and redirecting them. In the poem, man has already spoiled the natural beauty of water and women by leaving no space for them.

Structure and Form

‘A Muse of Water’ is a free verse lyric poem written in twelve stanzas of six lines each. With no rhyme or meter, the poet relies on punctuation, alliteration, sound, and line breaks to create and interrupt the flow of the lines. 

Kizer uses the period sparingly in this poem, and most stanzas are one long sentence. This adds a bit more impact when a period or exclamation point occurs, helping some lines stand out more than others.

Literary Devices

Some of the most notable literary devices in Carolyn Kizer’s ‘A Muse of Water’ are: 

  • Analogy – In this poem, Kizer creates an analogy between water with women. She compares how women and water both sustain life, create life, and serve humankind by nourishing and healing people. 
  • Alliteration – Kizer uses alliteration to create vivid sound images in her poem. For example, the lines “ turn too fast, / Trip on our hems” use the repeated T sound to create a sharp staccato. This sound emphasizes how quickly the speaker turns. 
  • Imagery – Carolyn Kizer is particularly fond of imagery, using sound, texture, color, and descriptive phrases to add life to her poetry. An excellent example from this poem is
  • Inversion – The poet uses inversion, or reversal of the expected word order, to create a slow pace in the lines “Here, if you care, and lie full-length, / Is water deep enough to drown.
  • Apostrophe – The women/water address the “Masters of civilization,” who are not present in the poem.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

We who must act as handmaidens


Are left, long-staring after her,

Narcissists by necessity;

In stanza one, the speaker of the poem compares women to handmaidens who serve the goddess of water. 

The speaker begins by using the pronoun “we,” indicating that she is the most vocal person in a large group of others. 

Whoever they are, they are women and must act as handmaidens, or servants, to their goddess, who lives beneath the water. These handmaidens, however, rarely get a glimpse of the goddess they serve.

They eagerly trip, stumble, and turn rapidly toward the water to see her. However, once they get a glimpse of her, she is leaving. Then, the handmaidens are left staring at a reflection of themselves in the water, as “narcissists by necessity.”

Kizer’s use of alliteration dominates this stanza, creating speed and slowness. The alliteration of T sounds in lines two to three produces a sharp swiftness as the handmaidens rush toward to water to get a glimpse of the goddess. The G sounds in the following lines create a smooth length that illustrates how softly the goddess glides away. 

Then, the L sounds in “left, long-staring” create a slow, lingering feeling that emphasizes the disappointment and pause of the women as they stare blankly into the water. 

This disappointment sets up the idea that women are always interested in becoming more like goddesses. However, divinity is unattainable for women who are merely servants in this poem. 

Stanza Two

Or water-carriers of our young


Imperious table-pounders, who

Are final arbiters of thirst.

In stanza two, it becomes clear that the speaker is talking as a representation of femininity, as she compares women to water. 

The speaker analogizes women to “water-carriers.” In doing so, she uses the symbols of amniotic fluid gushing forth when a woman is in labor and the “Artesian” breastmilk they produce for their young. 

The speaker states that women are mere “cup-bearers then, to tiny gods.” Again, like in stanza one, the speaker sees women as servants who have little purpose other than worshiping others, whether a goddess or a child. 

Stanza Three

Fasten the blouse, and mount the steps


That men bestow on Virgin Queens;

Or goddessing above the waist,

In stanza three, the speaker describes how, after serving their children, women “fasten the blouse, and mount the steps,” presumably to go into the bedroom. 

The speaker compares women to a “Royal Barge.” This stanza refers to the image of a figurehead on the prow of a ship.

These carved wood figureheads were traditionally placed on large ships for good luck, as many sailors believed that the image of a woman could calm the sea. Most of the time, these carvings included the woman’s head and bare breast, and the hips fluted out to become the rest of the ship. 

So, with this image, the poet places all of the men of the ship inside the figurehead’s hip region.

However, most notably, again, the women are charged with keeping the men safe at sea, a duty that “men bestow on Virgin Queens.”  Women are mere helpers in this poem and always serve others. 

Stanza Four

Appear as swan on Thames or Charles


Not our true, intimate nature, stained

By labor, and the casual tide.

In stanza four, the speaker compares women to swans to make the point that, while women are “stained by labor” or exhausted from serving men and children, they must make all that work look effortless. 

In this comparison, the women glide like swans, letting beautiful, “iridescent foam” conceal their furiously paddling feet. 

Above the surface, men can only see “Immortal feathers preened,” or cleaned, “in poems.” This phrase illustrates that, on the surface, women look like goddesses with immaculate white feathers, elegant beauty, and the refinement of poetry. 

However, the speaker notes that beauty is not the “true, intimate nature” of a woman. Instead, women are always tainted by the work they must do for others, and they can become unstable when the tide comes in.  

Stanza Five

Masters of civilization, you


The final, unpolluted glades

To cinder-bank and culvert-lip,

In stanza five of ‘A Muse of Water,’ the speaker formally addresses the “Masters of civilization.” With this phrase, it is clear that she is talking to men in general, playing on the history of the word Master as a term that servants and people of low rank would use to address the higher-ups. 

Note here that, so far, the speaker has compared women to both servants and goddesses. On the other hand, men are the “Masters” and exist in the spaces between where women exist. They stand in the middle ground between the subservient women and the goddesses. 

While women serve or have been a part of nature in this poem, men are interested in changing natural features. After moving out of the cave to found cities, men set up tents and put up idols of deities or gods and goddesses. 

As a result, they create culverts to channel water beneath roads and create artificial river banks out of burnt coal and concrete. 

These specific devices — culverts and cinder-banks — control water flow, just as men control women in this poem. These structures channel the water and send it tunneling below man-made structures, and in many ways, keep water from rising.

Thus, the speaker emphasizes how, even though men start to worship the deities that govern nature, men are taking over and attempting to control it. Likewise, following the analogy between women and water, men worship women. However, they also use artificial means to control them. 

Stanza Six

And all the pretty chatterers


We have, while springs and skies renew,

Dry wells, dead seas, and lingering drouth.

In stanza six of ‘A Muse of Water,’ the speaker explains the consequences of how men have attempted to control water. 

The speaker describes the lakes, rivers, and streams as “pretty chatterers” and “calm rivers.” Yet, despite how gentle and quiet these waters have become, the wells are coming up dry, the seas are dying, and there is a “drouth,” a Scottish word that means both drought and thirst. 

In this stanza, the poet chooses to use elegant words such as “pebbles,” “chatterers,” and “watercourse” to create a sound that emulates the trickling of a stream. However, in the final line, the hard alliteration of D within the list “Dry wells, dead seas, and lingering drouth” forces the listener to pause, adding emotional weight to the severity of the situation. 

Continuing with the poet’s analogy between women and water, women have lost touch with their powers of creation and can no longer find the goddess of stanza one, as the waters have dried up. 

This removal of the divine feminine, which is the water, leaves women with a thirst for freedom.

Stanza Seven

Water itself is not enough.


In reservoirs for his personal use:

Turn switches! Let the fountains play!

The speaker now explains how extensively men have harnessed the power of water, and thus, how men have harnessed the power of women. 

The speaker explains that “water itself is not enough” for men. Instead, water is most beneficial to them when they can control it and force it to work. The speaker explains how men use women as a status symbol “to fill his reflecting pools.” 

However, women are also excluded from men’s work, as water is drained out from cofferdams, contained areas where the water is pumped out for shipbuilding, oil drilling, or pier building. 

Another way men use water in this poem is to store it “in reservoirs for… personal use,” much like how some men see women as domestic servants who belong at home. Only when men turn switches can the water — or women — have an escape and play. 

Stanza Eight

And yet these buccaneers still kneel


So he needs poultice for his flesh.

So he needs water for his fire.

The irony of men’s simultaneous control and need for water is not lost on the speaker of ‘A Muse of Water.’ The speaker calls men buccaneers, indicating that they are pirates who do not obey the laws of nature. Yet, they still pray to the river goddess to heal and inspire them. 

From lines three to four of this stanza, the men command the goddess of water to inspire them. They offer no “please,” “thank you,” or “amen.” Thus, men in this poem are consistently controlling and demanding of both women and water, expecting it to bend to their every whim. 

The line “So he needs water for his fire” is very important to this poem, as it illustrates that man is the fire of the world, destroying and burning with intensity. On the other hand, women are the creators, life-sustainers, and gentle, fluid healers of the world. Thus, to the speaker, men are the opposites of women, but one cannot exist without the other. 

Stanza Nine

We rose in mists and died in clouds


A gleam of silver in the shale:

Lost murmur! Subterranean moan!

In stanza nine, the boundaries between women and water break. The women speak out as the water, which has either risen to the sky never to return or fallen deep beneath the earth, moaning in sadness. 

Both women and water have become silent due to the control of men, and they have given up their freedom to avoid oppression. While they avoid rising to the surface to become a part of man’s civilization, they lament underground, mourning their freedom. 

Stanza Ten

So flows in dark caves, dries away,


And you blame streams for thinning out,

plundered by man’s insatiate want?

In stanza ten, the water directly addresses men, asking them how they could blame water for becoming more scarce after all the ways in which men destroyed nature. 

The women-waters explain that if men had not paved over green meadows and cut down trees, they would still kiss the fields and fill the river banks.

Line four of this stanza is an excellent example of how Kizer uses punctuation to create verbal imagery. Just as the axes broke the tree branches or boughs, the sentence breaks at that point. 

These uses of punctuation are scattered throughout the poem, with descriptions of free-flowing water-receiving commas and very few periods. This clever use of punctuation allows the poet to illustrate how man has interrupted and broken the natural flow of water. 

Stanza Eleven

Rejoice when a faint music rises


By the long causeways and gray piers

Your civilizing lusts have made.

In stanza eleven of ‘A Muse of Water’ the speaker advises men to rejoice when they see or hear any glimpse of water that dares to rise to the surface. The water-women list the places where they must dwell now, such in “oil-stained rivers,” a “clump of weeds,” and “by the long causeways and gray piers,” emphasizing that man’s world has left no clean, safe place for water and women to thrive. 

Man has polluted the environment so much that women no longer feel safe there in this stanza, just as the water has no clean place to run. 

Thus, the speaker advises men to accept what they can still get, which is no longer a white swan. Instead, it is a woman stained by grease and oil, covered in weeds, standing by the side of the highway. 

In this way, the speaker illustrates that women have been painted over with man-made things and no longer have their natural beauty and spirit. They have become whatever man has made them out to be, and it is rare to find a woman left who has not been hurt by the patriarchy. 

Stanza Twelve

Discover the deserted beach


Here, if you care, and lie full-length,

Is water deep enough to drown.

In stanza twelve, the speaker recommends that men go to the “deserted beach,” which is empty, as all the women and water have left. Emaciated ghosts of curlews, or sea birds, safely wade there, creating a stark image to compare to the swan of stanza three. 

At the beach, warm, shallow waters bathe man’s feet “like the tawny hair of magdalens.” This reference to Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’s feet with her hair positions both women and water at men’s feet as reformed prostitutes who are mourning. However, that reference places man as Jesus right before the crucifixion, suggesting that man can only save himself if he sacrifices himself for his sins.

Thus, man must abandon his “civilizing lusts” and repent of bringing back the waters and setting women free from their service. 

The poem slows down in the final two lines as the poet uses inversion, or a reversal of the expected word order, to create a lingering, sad pace. 

The poet explains that if men lay down in the warm shallows, the water is still deep enough to drown. This statement’s placement right after the allusion to Mary Magdalene takes on a double meaning. 

It continues the idea that man must make a big sacrifice to restore nature and women to their natural place in the world, but it also refers to baptism. After this sacrifice, and after men ‘walk a day in the shoes’ of either water or women, they can start over and live a new life. 

This double meaning offers a tiny glimmer of hope for the future, even though the lines, at face value, are very bleak, dark, and heavy.


Who is the speaker in ‘A Muse of Water’?

The speaker in ‘A Muse of Water’ is never fully defined, but based on the context, it seems that the speaker is both a woman and water. As a woman, she represents the voice of femininity, fighting for freedom from oppression. As water, she fights for a better, cleaner environment where the water can run freely.

What is the meaning of ‘A Muse of Water’?

The meaning of ‘A Muse of Water’ is that civilization has destroyed the natural beauty of both women and water. In the poem, water and women are both subject to the control and management of men, who pay little attention to the more delicate, feminine forces of nature. Thus, man’s model of civilization has oppressed and destroyed the process of creation.

What are the similarities between water and women in ‘A Muse of Water’?

The similarities between women and water in ‘A Muse of Water’ are that they both sustain and create life, are gentle, serve men, heal people, and are subject to the oppression of modern civilization. The ways men create domestic roles and beauty standards for women are similar to how they redirect and create new pathways for water.

What is the tone of ‘A Muse of Water’?

The tone of ‘A Muse of Water’ is frustrated, angry, sad, desperate, and indignant. The speaker is making an argument, channeling as many emotions as possible to get men to listen. In addition, the speaker expresses her sadness that both water and women have become polluted and oppressed by the structure of modern civilization.

Similar Poetry

Carolyn Kizer was one of the pioneers of modern feminist poetry, and she had a sharp wit that bled into almost all of her poems. She was influential to many of her peers and the later generation of poets.

Some poems that, directly or indirectly, took inspiration from Kizer’s work include:

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Aimee LaFon Poetry Expert
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.
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