The Song Is You

Marilyn Nelson


Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson is an American poet born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946.

She has written numerous books for children and worked as a translator.

The Song Is You by Marilyn Nelson explores love through the metaphor of musical instruments being played. When in love, there is a piece of beautiful music reflected. Yet, this begins to fade, instruments being left to ‘sleep in the dark’ for many years. Nelson, having lost a love of life, hopes that she hasn’t lost her instrument forever. One day, Nelson must learn to love again.

The Song Is You by Marilyn Nelson


Summary of The Song Is You

The Song Is You’ by Marilyn Nelson uses the extended metaphor of humans as musical instruments to explore the place of love in our lives.

She writes after losing a lover, her instrument falling into disrepair and ‘sleep’. Indeed, she falls into a loveless state, ‘in the dark of an attic for years’. The unused instrument sits in the attic, Nelson not having anyone to love. By the end of the poem, Nelson suggests that she has not lost hope. Instead, she is just waiting for the right person to ‘pluck notes’ from her body once again.

You can read the full poem here.


Form and Structure

Marilyn Nelson splits The Song Is You into seven stanzas of four lines each. Each stanza follows a rough ABBA rhyme scheme, with some being more like half-rhymes. There is a certain regularity to the poem, Nelson perhaps reflecting her experience with this topic. The precision of metaphor reflects Nelson’s own personal experience, her knowledgable confidence reflected through the certain rhyme scheme.

The half-rhyme between ‘embrace’ and ‘caress’ in the final stanza could reflect the lack of unity she feels. Nelson believes that she will probably not find love again, even if she does hope for it. Due to this, there is a back of unity in the rhyme scheme, this rhyme falling slightly flat. This mismatched rhyme echoing the lack of love in her life, something just not connecting.


Themes in The Song Is You

One of the central themes that Nelson explores within The Song Is You is love and the loss of love. Nelson states that she was the ‘great love of my Sweetheart’s life’, reflecting the close relationship that they had. Yet, this love fell through, the woman ending up ‘man and wife’ with another person. The woman Nelson loved ended up married to someone else, that hurt causing Nelson to draw back into herself. The music that flowed from them was silenced, the poet now having ‘ruined my voice’.

Another theme that Nelson explores within The Song Is You is music. Both being central to the metaphor and content of the poem, music is incredibly important. The music reflects a certain joy a vivacity of life, Nelson using this as a basis for describing love. Instead of conceptualizing love using exemplification, she relies on metaphor. Music provides the pathway to do that, the joy engendered also reflecting the feeling of being in love.


Literary Techniques

As discussed above, metaphor is one of the central techniques that Nelson uses to bring the poem to life. The extended metaphor of humans being musical instruments that can be played reflects a deep sense of emotional joy. The happiness suggested by music allows Nelson to describe the feelings she has while in love. The extended metaphor also seeps into disuse- a music instrument left sleeping in an attic reflecting the lack of permanence of love.

Another technique that Nelson uses within the poem is caesura. Nelson employs caesura to create slight metrical pauses within her poetry. These pauses then cause emphasis to be placed on certain words and ideas. For example, when a ‘man came between us’, Nelson follows this with caesura to reflect the impact that it had on her life. The fractured meter of the line containing a note of sorrow as she accepts her love is over.


The Song Is You Analysis

Stanzas One and Two

Musical instruments sleep in the dark
or the crystalline heart of a stone.

The Song Is You begins by establishing the extended metaphor of ‘Musical instruments’ that are ‘sleep[ing] in the dark’. The state of them asleep for ‘several hours a day’ acts as a microcosm of a whole human life, only being in love for a portion of that life.

The enjambment across the first to the second line could be a reflection of this time passing. The instruments sleep in the ‘dark’, the loveless experience being one that is somber and dreary.

The contrast between ‘dark’, with connotations of melancholy, and the description of ‘play’, which signals joviality, emphasizes the dichotomy between being in love and being lonely. Nelson presents being single as a deeply melancholic experience, not being able to ‘play’, merely in silence.

Yet, this silence does ‘hold music’, life is not solely about relationships. Life is full of ‘horizons which have never been viewed’, Nelson writing about the depth of human experiences. A relationship is one of these experiences, but it is not everything.

Nelson suggests that her love was ‘undeclared’, ‘growing deeper in solitude’. Her love became stronger as it went unsaid, growing while she stays away. This, we can assume, continues throughout her whole life, the lack of music reflecting the lack of love in her love.


Stanzas Three and Four

My sleep, however, was more like a death:
they were pronounced man and wife.

In stanzas three and four of The Song Is You, Nelson presents her life without love as ‘more like a death’. The use of caesura throughout this line, ‘My sleep, however, was’ fractures the meter. This metrical disruption could be emblematic of the broken heart that Nelson carries around with her. Indeed, the fractured meter providing a painful depiction of Nelson struggling to verbalize the ‘death’ of her love.

Her instrument has been let in the ‘dark of an attic for years’, fading into nothing. The word is ‘forgetting my existence’, her experience of love, the ‘best female being band on the earth’ becoming a distant memory. If each love is an instrument, Nelson’s reference to a ‘swing band’ reflects the number of people she has connected to in life.

This includes her ‘Sweetheart’s life’, being the ‘great love’ for that woman. Yet, Nelson writes that a ‘man came between us’, pushing Nelson away and falling ‘out of tune’. Soon after, ‘they were pronounced man and wife’, Nelson watching her love enter a heterosexual relationship.


Stanzas Five, Six, Seven

Instead of the charts, my gal read Dr. Spock.
and pluck notes from my gut with her fingers’ caress.

Over the years, Nelson never does manage to recover from this, her voice being ‘ruined’. This lack of love experience continues throughout her life, watching time pass her by. Her ‘Sweetheart’s grandson’ took her to the music stop to fix her ‘voice’. Part of Nelson just sees herself as a ‘sorry old bass’, it is too late to recover her music.

Yet, she has not completely ‘lost hope’. The use of enjambment, followed by an ellipsis, demonstrates the duration of this hope. It has lasted Nelson her whole life, hoping that one day she will fall in love again. She will find someone to ‘hold’ her in ‘a tender embrace’, physical contact bringing music back to her life.

The final three lines focus of the poem focus on this physical connection ‘someone will press her warm length to my back’, Nelson finding love again. From this, they will ‘pluck notes’ from her body, the blurring of sexual and musical imagery reflecting the coming to life of the musical instrument. The ‘fingers’ caress’ will restore the music of her life. The title, The Song Is You, reflects this sense of love and music, a person being her ‘Song’ to sing.

Until Nelson finds that ‘someone’, she will simply wait – her ‘silence’ holding music that she must learn.


Similar Poetry

Blues for Almost forgotten Music by Roxanne Beth Johnson also uses the extended metaphor of music to explore love and heartbreak. Both poets find the joy of music to be an accurate depiction of love.

Simple Song Blues Villanelle by Tim Seibles similarly uses music to explore aspects of life. However, while Nelson looks towards love, Seibles writes about the transience of life. As a song, life is only so long, always coming to an end. Both poets explore life intertwined with metaphors of music.

Jack Limebear Poetry Expert
Jack is undertaking a degree in World Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team in 2019. Poetry is the intersection of his greatest passions, languages and literature, with his focus on translation bridging the gap.

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