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Enter






Roger Waters, the Poet of Many

 

 

As a rock lyricist, Roger Waters is obviously a poet, but it is not often that one comes across a poem written by the lyricist of Pink Floyd that was not meant to be accompanied by music.  The  poem to the right was printed in Asylum Magazine, given in response to a request to write a special piece for the magazine. Mr. Waters didnít have time to write something specifically for Asylum, but he enclosed a poem he wrote for his wife,"which touches on how art touches us, and connects us to whatever it is that heals us"! 

I like this poem as an example of Watersís work because, in condensed form, it evidences the major aspect of Watersís writing that makes him one of the leading songwriters of the twentieth century--multiplicity of meaning expressed in layers of figurative language. This tendency towards multiple meaning manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is distinguished by a deceptive simplicity. Watersís magnum opus, The Wall, relies very heavily on symbols and figurative language: the thin ice of modern life, flying as escape, the stone as the burden of living, worms as agents of hatred. The wall serves several symbolic functions: as symbol of Pinkís self-separation from humanity, as symbol of that which separates those assimilated into society from those considered freaks, as the representative of humanityís alienation. The symbols in The Wall are common or easily understood, but underneath this obvious direction of meaning there lies ambiguity.  The song "Hey You" is a good example of ambiguity obscuring and enhancing meaning: 

Hey you! out there in the cold
Getting lonely getting old, can you feel me?
Hey you! standing in the aisles
With itchy feet and fading smiles, can you feel me?
Hey you! donít help them to bury the light
Donít give in without a fight

Hey you! out there on your own
Sitting naked by the phone
Would you touch me?
Hey you! with your ears against the wall
Waiting for someone to call out would you touch me?
Hey you! would you help me carry the stone
Open your heart, Iím coming home

Who is you? Is you one person or many? The ambiguity of this song lies in its refusal to specify a subject and in its shifting setting.  The first stanza evokes images of Pinkís concertgoers as they shuffle out of the show, the excitement of the concert slowly wearing off, and Pink wondering if he really appeared to them or if he is merely a shadow, someone who has disappeared. The first line of the stanza, however, seems divorced from this scene, unless, of course, we see everyone as getting lonely and old.  The second stanza shows a definite shift of setting, a setting that seems more figurative than real, a landscape of a lonely person.  Pink could be calling out to other lonely, desperate people or he could be calling out to a person that he feels is waiting for him to seek help--someone with her ear against his wall.  The words "Iím coming home" even suggest that Pink is calling out to his wife. The last line of the song, not quoted above, Together we stand, divided we fall, could be a reference to Pinkís failing marriage or to society generally. All of the separate and varied images that are raised in this song are valid and, I think, intentional, but they are not the main image, the image of Pink himself, sitting naked by the phone--an attitude of suspended communication--waiting for himself to take control, to fight, to experience himself. As a plea to his self is the only way all the lines of this song can be reconciled. We are presented with images of Pink in two different situations-among people, feeling uncomfortable, stifled, and then alienated and alone, behind his wall, experiencing this isolation as self-imposed. This song is a portrait of a man divided, between a public and private self, among ego, id, and superego, between a narcissistic self and a self-loathing self, between a physical self and an emotional self. When these selves come together, then Pink can overcome. 

Though this interpretation makes the most sense, it in no way negates the validity of the other meanings explored above. The brilliance of the lyrics lays in just this multiplicity of meaning. Through just one literary convention, an interrogation, Waters conveys a multitude of images that add depth to a unifying portrait, for Pink is pleading to everyone and anyone for help. 

The poem "Upon Reading" is clearly about a husbandís love for his wife. The husband feels that his marital relationship is better than reading a book because, like reading, romantic love makes him feel connected with a larger and timeless humanity, but only in lasting loving does he sense this connection shared and eternal. Or, more succinctly, love is reading a neverending book together. However, when it comes to a more comprehensive understanding of the poem, this simple reduction of the poemís meaning is not enough, for we are again confronted with confusion. Who or what are the spirits hard to touch and when is that distant age from when droplets spray? 

It seems to me that those two lines, one in the first stanza, one in the second, are structurally related. The poem uses two similes to convey its meaning: a book is like a canteen and the narrator/readerís wife is like a book. Both water and words are analogous with a wifeís being and ideas of thirst and saturation connect the stanzas to each other. Yet the spirits and the distant age are lines only indirectly related to the central similes-the spirits are given to the narrator/reader by the droplets of words in a book and the distant age is the source of droplets of love experience and/or words--and in my mind this connects the lines. Also, the use of that before distant age indicates a reference to an earlier mention of the distant age and the spirits hard to touch is the only idea in the first stanza that can be associated with the idea of distant time. Given the connection of these two lines, in order to help understand the meaning of them, we must have a clear idea of who the spirits are and what the droplets represent. 

The image of droplets is clear in the first stanza. They are the words of a book, but through these words, they also represent a kind of communication or relationship--identification with humanity. The first stanza identifies the relationship with spirits hard to touch as the purpose of reading a book-what is gotten out of it. Given the simile of canteen/book, then this relationship or communication is equated with the droplets that come from the canteen. In the second stanza, however, what is symbolized in the image of droplets is more confusing and it seems that there are two ways of approaching this confusion. Either we can allow the new simile of book/wife to dominate, which would give the droplets a new reference to a different type of relationship, romantic love, the droplet being the essence of marital love; or we can allow the simile of the previous stanza to predominate and justify this decision with the suggestion that the use of the definite article that rather than the indefinite article a refers the idea of a distant time back to the first stanza. 
With this interpretation, the droplets would still represent identification with humanity. In the first case, then, the distant age would seem to refer to the beginning of the love relationship in parallel to the beginning of a book, in the second case, the distant age could be the age of the spirits. If we accept the first case, then the poem is understood, the original question answered. If we accept the second case, then there are further complications, for we must determine who the spirits are in order to determine from what age they come. 

Today, the most common definition that would immediately be applied to the word spirits is some sort of supernatural being much like a ghost-the essences of dead people. However, The Little Oxford Dictionary defines spirit as animating or vital principle, immaterial part, of man etc.; person viewed as possessing this; mental or moral nature or qualities; disembodied soul; incorporeal being; tone, general meaning of feeling (of), mood; mettle, vigour, courage, dash..." Given these definitions, the spirits hard to touch could be the authors of books, the characters of books, or simply the animating principles of humanity, the emotions, values, and abstract thought that distinguishes humanity. Any of these interpretations within the context of the poem indicate that through reading, the narrator/reader has made a connection with humanity, but the interpretation of spirits as authors and characters could interpret that distant time as the time when the book was written or is about, and the interpretation of spirits as pieces of the human essence could make that distant time the beginning of humanity, of communication, of relationships. 

I have argued above that Watersís ambiguity is purposeful and therefore that distant time could encompass both of these interpretations. This duplicity of meaning compliments the dual similes of canteen/book and book/wife and exemplifies the idea of love having supremacy over reading, i.e. the time of the book has ended, but the time of humanity has not, and the narrator/readerís romantic love will continue as part of the eternity of humanity and not end as an individual story. But, Iíd like to propose a third interpretation. What if the definite article, that, refers back not to the first stanza, but to the title of the poem. Then, the distant time is the 1940s, when All The Pretty Horses is set. I like this interpretation because it includes the other two interpretations. All The Pretty Horses is a story of love-the love between friends, the love for fellow humans, and the love between man and woman. Maybe, for the narrator/reader--for Roger Waters--the spirits hard to touch are the spirits of generosity, loyalty, passion, kindness, perseverance, unselfishness, forgiveness, etc. The spirits found in the characters of Cormac McCarthyís novel, in any books magical to the reader, spray in droplets to the present and into eternity through the medium of the narrator/readerís love for his wife, a love that keeps the spirits of the book alive in the psyche of the narrator. 

In the song "Hey You" from The Wall album, Roger Waters connects Pink to humanity through the use of ambiguous images which allows the understanding that an inner plea for self-help is also a general outward plea. In a similar manner, in the poem "Upon Reading" Waters connects the narrator, or himself, to humanity through an ambiguous link between a faraway time that is any time as represented in a bookís story and also the beginning of a personal love story, both of which continue to keep alive the positive human forces that are idealized in books and realized in love. 

Upon Reading All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy Summer 1993

by Roger Waters

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.

Not so with you my wife
My love, my life
I do not have to seek you out
I read you day and night
And drink and bathe
And share my coat
And droplets spray in rainbows
From that distant age
And we will never
Taste the final drop
Nor turn the final page.

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.

Not so with you my wife
My love, my life
I do not have to seek you out
I read you day and night
And drink and bathe
And share my coat
And droplets spray in rainbows
From that distant age
And we will never
Taste the final drop
Nor turn the final page.

Upon Reading All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy Summer 1993

by Roger Waters

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.

Not so with you my wife
My love, my life
I do not have to seek you out
I read you day and night
And drink and bathe
And share my coat
And droplets spray in rainbows
From that distant age
And we will never
Taste the final drop
Nor turn the final page.

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.

Not so with you my wife
My love, my life
I do not have to seek you out
I read you day and night
And drink and bathe
And share my coat
And droplets spray in rainbows
From that distant age
And we will never
Taste the final drop
Nor turn the final page.

Upon Reading All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy Summer 1993

by Roger Waters

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.

Not so with you my wife
My love, my life
I do not have to seek you out
I read you day and night
And drink and bathe
And share my coat
And droplets spray in rainbows
From that distant age
And we will never
Taste the final drop
Nor turn the final page.

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.

Not so with you my wife
My love, my life
I do not have to seek you out
I read you day and night
And drink and bathe
And share my coat
And droplets spray in rainbows
From that distant age
And we will never
Taste the final drop
Nor turn the final page.

Upon Reading All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy Summer 1993

by Roger Waters

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.

Not so with you my wife
My love, my life
I do not have to seek you out
I read you day and night
And drink and bathe
And share my coat
And droplets spray in rainbows
From that distant age
And we will never
Taste the final drop
Nor turn the final page.

There is a magic in some books
That sucks a man into connections with
The spirits hard to touch
That join him to his kind
A man will seek the reading out
Guarded like a canteen in the desert heat
But sometimes needs must drink
And then the final drop falls sweet
The last page turns
The end.



"Upon Reading 'All the Pretty Horses' by Cormac McCarthy Summer 1993" was posted on the Echoes internet mailing list on July 11, 2000. The text of the poem was taken from "REG, The International Roger Waters Fanclub Newsletter", Issue No. 17, Summer 1997.

 

 



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