Summary of The Myth of Music
“The Myth of Music” by Rachel M. Harper describes the mythical power of music to convey one’s generational, personal and familial relationships.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how one particular type of music, that has been given to her like “oral history,” defines her life with her family. It contains a melody that is Harper’s “inheritance.” It travels along the lines of her family, one generation at a time, being added to and improved.
She recalls past experiences that gave her great peace, being with her family, and those that occur after that sadden her, like her mother leaving. All these elements of life are combined in the family music and she is able to listen to it whenever she needs to be comforted or reminded of how she loved her mother.
The poem concludes with the speaker stating that no one, other than her father, will ever be able to experience the music with her. It is deeply personal and belongs only to them. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Myth of Music
For my father
The speaker of this piece, the poet herself, begins by crafting a brief introduction to a mythology of music. She is contemplating the power of music and whether the love for melody, and the understanding of a particular melody, can be passed down through the generations of a family. Can it operate within one’s genes as does the propensity for,
…brown eyes or a strong
left hook [?]
Whether this is the case or not, she has come to understand a particular melody to be her own “inheritance.” It is more than just one melody though, it is a whole progression of music from the title track to the album cover. Each element of the record is sacred to the speaker and she sees it as being representative of the relationship she has with her family.
In the following lines she compares the sounds of this particular music to “oral history.” Instead of spoken stories being passed down from parent to child, she receives the music. She continues on to state that the music is the “only myth [she] knows.” Harper refers to the music as both “myth” and “oral history” as oral tales often have a habit of becoming more and more embellished as they are passed down from person to person; so too does the music that is her history.
In the second half of the first stanza the speaker places herself within a physical scene, giving the narrative a specific setting, at least for this portion.
She is with her brother, sitting,
…on the hardwood
floors of a damp November,
Her brother is “dealing cards” from a deck that she calls, “incomplete.” This is a great metaphor for the speaker’s family life. They are together, things may not be perfect, but it is their life together. They are working from an incomplete deck, but so is everyone else. Harper doesn’t realize at the moment in which this is occurring that she is living in the “definition” of “collective memory” and “family.”
The following lines cast the interactions of her family into a song. The ways that they are with one another come to her in “rough-textured tones.” She can feel, “the voice of a horn so familiar.” Now that she is older and looking back on the times that she had with her family she sees the way that they were crafting their own song. At the time she did not know that she was “listening” or “singing.” Harper could not understand in the moment that she was a participant in the composition.
Although the song they are composing does not have words, it can still be sung, like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”
The next stanza the speaker continues to remember her state of mind when she was living with her family, writing their music. She projects herself into the future “six months,” to the time that she knows her mother will be,
…2,000 miles away, deciding
if she wants to come home,
There are bad things on the horizon, but the younger Harper who sits with her brother on the floor does not know that.
In the moment that she understands her mother’s dilemma, she will have “forgotten / this moment,” and the “security” she felt in hearing her mother’s “footsteps.” Once more the speaker uses the elements of this moment, her past happiness, to allude to the creation of song. The beat of the footsteps, and the “sound of typing” lend themselves to the melody of a song. She feels contentment in these features of her life and can imagine them filling “the whole house / with your spirit.”
Although her mother is not there with her at this time, she has the music that was created between their interactions to soothe her. It is like her mother is there with her, whenever she imagines the mythical melody they created. It sounds like a “declaration of love.”
Harper reaffirms in the final stanza that no matter what happens over the intervening years, the “music will remain.” The music is deeply personal to the speaker. It is not something she would ever be able to share with anyone. It stays, “locked in the rhythm / of my childhood.” Through it, she is able to recall her past and be lulled by the peace she once felt.
In the final seven lines of the poem the speaker addresses the universality of music. She does not believe that anyone else could hear, much less understand her song, it is for her alone. The “notes” of the piece are like “fingerprints” they are wholly unique to her family. She will never “share” the music with “anyone / but you.”
If one does not have the initial subheading at the beginning of this piece the final line is somewhat confusing. The poem is dedicated to the poet’s father and she is simply stating that the music is going to stay within the family. No one, but her father and herself, will be able to hear and experience it.
About Rachel M. Harper
Rachel M. Harper is known as a poet, novelist, and screenwriter. She graduated from Brown University and the University of Southern California.
Her short stories and poetic works have been collected in a number of different anthologies and published in a variety of journals. She is currently on the faculty at Spalding University and her most recent novel, This Side of Providence, was published in 2016. She has won awards for both her dramatic and fiction works.