Monday, February 14, 2011

Songs From Poems: Now Touch The Air Softly

Peter Mayer: Now Touch The Air Softly

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Even to a cynical heart like mine, it seems appropriate to post this on Valentine’s Day.

Now touch the air softly, step gently, one, two ...
I'll love you 'til roses are robin's egg blue;
I'll love you 'til gravel is eaten for bread,
And lemons are orange, and lavender's red.

“Now Touch The Air Softly” (more formally known as “A Pavane for the Nursery”) is a popular wedding poem by William Jay Smith, the USA’ 19th Poet Laureate. He was born in 1918 in Winnfield, Louisiana, and in his very long career has written for adults and children. I do not lay claim to great affection for poetry, but Smith’s style appeals to me, especially for its clarity.

Now touch the air softly, swing gently the broom.
I'll love you 'til windows are all of a room;
And the table is laid, And the table is bare,
And the ceiling reposes on bottomless air.

Smith has explained his style: “I believe that poetry should communicate: it is, by its very nature, complex, but its complexity should not prevent its making an immediate impact on the reader.” So when his poems dish out alliterations, I find that greatly preferable to impenetrable metaphor.

“Now Touch The Air Softly” has its fair share of metaphor, but its lucidity surely has helped its elevation to the canon of wedding poetry. Who’d preserve a dry eye as they survey the happy couple eagerly setting out on their mutual commitment with these words providing the dramatic, impassioned soundtrack:

I'll love you 'til heaven rips the stars from his coat,
And the moon rows away in a glass-bottomed boat;
And Orion steps down like a river below,
And earth is ablaze, and oceans aglow.

So it’s all the more unromantic to learn that Smith, who at almost 93 is still alive, ended his marital career with fellow poet Barbara Howe not in death doing them part, but in the legal construct of divorce.

“Great poetry,” according to Smith, “must have its own distinctive music; it must resound with the music of the human psyche.” And if the human psyche requires aid in that, folk singer Peter Mayer in 1999 put Smith’s poem to music – and most enchantingly so. Mayer, from Minnesota, has released nine albums independently and built up a fair following, but has yet to achieve a breakthrough. Read his brief bio and reviews of his work at

So touch the air softly, and swing the broom high.
We will dust the grey mountains, and sweep the blue sky:
And I'll love you as long as the furrow the plough,
As however is ever, and ever is now.

(Photo from

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