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Should we treat loneliness with poetry?

Sharing realities through lyrical language

20 02 13.karen licensed final

Can poetry make us less lonely? Does reading poems have any real power to comfort or heal people? Most people encounter poetry as a solitary experience, reading alone and in silence, so it’s not obvious why poems would bring us closer to our communities or ease loneliness. Surely it’s better to put down the books and go out into the world?

Those who answer no might point to the theory that poetry resonates with an individual’s emotional state (let’s say loneliness), helping them to come to terms with and process how they’re feeling. Support for this theory has sparked a ‘poetry therapy movement’, in which individuals suffering from all manner of conditions, from chronic pain to anxiety, are prescribed, of all things, a poem.

Among the advocates of this movement is the founder of the Forward Prizes for Poetry, and chairman of the Somerset House Trust, William Sieghart CBE, whose book The Poetry Pharmacy prescribes the following poem for loneliness:

I wish I could show you
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being!

This passage is taken from My Brilliant Image by the Persian poet Hafez, and it’s an interesting choice because it doesn’t address loneliness from the first-person (i.e. ‘I am lonely’) but instead takes the perspective of one who is addressing the lonely. It’s far from clear how reading this poem could help someone suffering from loneliness; in fact, it runs counter to the advice from mental health charities who suggest people put themselves in social spaces, begin making connections through groups and befriending schemes, or try talking therapies as ways of treating loneliness.In all of these cases, the treatment is to physically interact with people, rather than remaining alone.

‘Solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self’.

To understand this seeming contradiction, it’s useful to unpack the distinctions between loneliness and solitude. While loneliness is understood as a negative emotional response bringing with it a host of damaging psychological and even physiological effects, solitude is viewed more positively as a state of being, often associated with reflection. Though seemingly very different, the line between solitude and loneliness is very thin. Hannah Arendt argues that ‘solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self’.

So if it’s possible to stray from solitude into loneliness, is it also possible to pass from loneliness into solitude? And does My Brilliant Image help readers do just that? Despite the use of the second person, Hafez’s poem invites the reader to take up both the first person and second person perspective within the poem, facilitating a self-address (speaking to oneself as a way of being company for oneself), and re-establishing the self-companionship to which Arendt referred.

But does this companionship constitute a fully-fledged treatment for loneliness? I don’t think so.

Connecting with oneself is only the first step to relieving loneliness, and while self-addresses may help us feel at ease with our aloneness, they can’t help us feel connected with other people.

What this poem and poetry in general does offer in that regard is a sense of commonality. As poet David Constantine says, ‘poetry is common; the stuff of it is common, even commonplace. Poetry comes from what we as human beings have in common’.  On the most fundamental level, the common ground is language. Despite our differences and idiosyncrasies, we share language with every person in our linguistic community, each of whom has the capacity to meet us halfway in understanding what we are attempting to express.

That’s not to say the process is fool proof; there’s plenty of room for error when it comes to communicating through language. Words are never inert signifiers; they are subjectively deployed already awash with the expresser’s associations before being further befuddled by those of the recipient.

Philosopher C.S. Peirce goes as far as to say that words in themselves have no meaning at all; meaning is ascribed to words through the act of interpretation. This makes language sound risky – creating an impassable gulf between individuals, not to mention leaky as a mode of transferring meaning – yet people still look to language as a crucial site of connection. We still desire to make-meaning and express ourselves, despite never being sure whether we have connected to others in the way we intended, or been fully understood. 

Loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition, yet it runs counter to the basic human need for connection.

We might then think of the experience of language as an analogue to loneliness. The linguistic gulf between individuals can never be fully bridged, yet we desire and strive for a connection with others through language regardless. In a similar way, loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition, yet it runs counter to the basic human need for connection.

Reading poetry about loneliness can be comforting because we come to feel connected with the experience of loneliness as expressed by another. Even if linguistically we cannot fully grasp what loneliness is for them, we can come to see our loneliness as something shared and shareable with others, rather than a feeling to hold onto and internalise.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell conveyed it well when, following a period of intense loneliness, he wrote: ‘everyone who realises at all what human life is must feel at some time the strange loneliness of every separate soul, and then the discovery in others of the same loneliness makes a new strange tie, and a growth of pity so warm as to be almost a compensation for what is lost’.

So if sharing our loneliness is an antidote to loneliness, what lonely poem would I share? One of the best examples that springs to mind is Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me be Lonely, a work which offers a meditation on loneliness itself:

Define loneliness?

Yes.

It’s what we can’t do for each other.

What do we mean to each other?

What does life mean?

Why are we here if not for each other?

Throughout the poem, there’s a separation between the first and second person, between the ‘me’ and ‘you’, between the self-expression in the poem and my reading of the words, which seems to resist the idea of the self-address. The resulting experience of reading this work is loneliness itself; desiring to connect with another but ultimately failing by virtue of the fundamental aloneness and individuality that characterises the human condition.

We aren’t alone in trying but failing to reach others, which helps us see that we are not alone in our loneliness.

This may at first seem bleak, but this poem reminds us that we aren’t alone in trying but failing to reach others, which helps us see that we are not alone in our loneliness, nor is it pointless to continue trying to reach out to others, because they are trying to reach out to us. There is always the hope of connection.

Life is a form of hope?

If you are hopeful.

Maybe hope is the same as breath – part of what it means to be human and alive.

Or maybe hoping is the same as waiting.

It can be futile.

Waiting for what?

For a life to begin.

I am here.

And I am still lonely.

Rankine highlights those things that we share individualistically, such as breathing, waiting and hoping. These are all things I must do individually but you do these things too. So although my breath is not shared with you, however, we both share in breathing. My waiting and hoping is also mine but we can wait and hope together.

What emerges is a form of intimacy based on common feeling, or at least the potential for common feeling; the shared and the shareable. These ‘lonely poems’ have a power to redress our expectation of what connecting with others really means -translating loneliness into solitude, and reconciling us to the inevitability of aloneness. As with leaky language, the risks do not outweigh the hope for connection.

If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

See big ideas like this one debated live at the IAI’s online festival, HowTheLightGetsIn Global between September 19-20. Hundreds of events live-streamed from London, Delhi and New York, featuring the biggest thinkers in philosophy, science, politics, the arts and economics. Find out more here.
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