Poetry for the lonely
April 1, 2020 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I am alone in a small apartment, observing the social distancing rules that are in place for the foreseeable future. So, like many of us, I feel quite lonely. (Also quite broken-hearted, which doesn't help.) I'd like to read some poetry. Can we collectively compile a corona-inspired collection of poems that somehow make our isolation more bearable?

I'll start with this one by Dutch poet Rutger Kopland:


Things are happening here and I am the only
one who knows which

I shall name them and also say why

there’s an old garden seat standing under the apple-tree
an old football lying in the grass
old sounds are coming out of the house
there is old light in the sky

this is happening here: a garden in the evening

and what you don’t hear and don’t see - the places
where we dug holes
and filled them up again, weeping

I tell you this because I do not want to be alone
before I am
posted by Desertshore to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Keeping Quiet

By Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about...

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with

Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
posted by Young Kullervo at 3:29 PM on April 1, 2020 [14 favorites]

Wild Geese - Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
posted by GernBlandston at 3:30 PM on April 1, 2020 [7 favorites]

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - (314)
by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
posted by Miko at 3:34 PM on April 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've been writing a poem pretty much every day... mostly with being here, in this time and all...

Hope you like this one:

That our lives now encompass new parameters,
Perhaps as if there is a new compass direction,
Or that our compass now extends upwards
As well, and so we are all no longer three dimensional.
Or perhaps things have simply shifted, and we now
See behind things, see the forms there that had been hidden,
And some things that we used to see are gone.

And now, perhaps we can make new things,
Even with this awful weight over everything.
We might know, I think, if this is so
By looking at the old things we’d made,
As if in childhood, and finding them to be foreign,
And perhaps limited, or maybe unfathomable,
No longer something that we can accomplish.

We will thus remake our world: and see that
We may no longer be children, and we may
Find those old things we once loved, and see
Them now as if a memory reawakened:
Still distant, yet still loved. And so, yes,
We may hope to someday come across some
Artifact of today, and somehow know to love.

March 21, 2020 Eugene
posted by emmet at 3:37 PM on April 1, 2020 [11 favorites]

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo's cry—
I long for Kyoto.

Matsuo Bashō
posted by oflinkey at 3:39 PM on April 1, 2020 [8 favorites]

There is a group on Facebook called CoronaVerses that you might enjoy.
posted by Mistress at 3:54 PM on April 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

New Brunswick Answers
by Shane Nielson

You are alone.
You were and were.
I am an altar.
I sing low of your body.
Our myths are compatible.
How could they not be?
Yes, I remember time, families, literature, and land.
I remember ghosts and their dreams.
That there was pain means that you can hear this answer, which is their answer.
Listen and understand.
You ask questions as commands, but I'm a silent refrain.
Hear the sail snap the headwind.
I am enough.
posted by zdravo at 3:55 PM on April 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

These two poems shared by friends feel particularly apt right now.

"Song" - Adrienne Rich

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.

You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely

If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning.

And this one by Ellen Bass:

Any Common Desolation
can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.
posted by katecholamine at 3:59 PM on April 1, 2020 [9 favorites]

Some poets and others reading poetry to share during these times:
Poets on Couches, by the Paris Review
British actor Samuel West reading poems suggested by his twitter followers.
posted by yesbut at 4:33 PM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Barn's Burnt Down
by Mizuta Masahide

Barn's burnt down --
I can see the moon.


Black Maps
by Mark Strand

Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,

not the sea that celebrates
only departures,
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.

You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?

The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,

in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness,

the bleak, temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath.

And if they are studied at all
it is only to find,
too late, what you thought
were concerns of yours

do not exist.
Your house is not marked
on any of them,
nor are your friends,

waiting for you to appear,
nor are your enemies,
listing your faults.
Only you are there,

saying hello
to what you will be,
and the black grass
is holding up the black stars.
posted by cocoagirl at 4:55 PM on April 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

It's more about resilience than loneliness, I suppose, but I've been coming back to Ada Limón's Instructions on Not Giving Up frequently:

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
posted by the primroses were over at 4:58 PM on April 1, 2020 [9 favorites]

The Poetry Foundation has a collection of Poems of Hope and Resilience, many of which have been part of their poem of the day email recently.

I personally liked Try to Praise the Mutilated World, but there's a lot of good stuff in a lot of different styles.
posted by momus_window at 5:30 PM on April 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Olav Hauge - Conch

You build a house for your soul,
and wander proudly
in starlight
with the house on your back,
like a snail.
When danger is near,
you crawl inside
and are safe
behind your hard

And when you are no more,
the house will
live on,
a testament
to your soul's beauty.
And the sea of your loneliness
will sing deep

Translated from Norwegian by Robert Bly

Ada Limón - Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
posted by diamondsky at 5:40 PM on April 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Abandoned Valley - Jack Gilbert

Can you understand being alone so long
you would go out in the middle of the night
and put a bucket into the well
so you could feel something down there
tug at the other end of the rope?
posted by crone islander at 6:03 PM on April 1, 2020 [8 favorites]

It's cheesy as hell, but Robert Service spends a lot of time talking about being alone, usually in the wilderness. (To be clear, I love most of it.)
It's cruel cold on the water-front, silent and dark and drear;
Only the black tide weltering, only the hissing snow;
And I, alone, like a storm-tossed wreck, on this night of the glad New Year,
Shuffling along in the icy wind, ghastly and gaunt and slow.

They're playing a tune in McGuffy's saloon,
and it's cheery and bright in there
(God! but I'm weak — since the bitter dawn, and never a bite of food);
I'll just go over and slip inside — I mustn't give way to despair —
Perhaps I can bum a little booze if the boys are feeling good.

. . .
posted by eotvos at 6:04 PM on April 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

Small Comfort, by Katha Pollitt

Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,

the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet—too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments

of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We're near the end,

but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm's green dome
O let the last bus bring

love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.
posted by bricoleur at 6:51 PM on April 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

I am not a poetry person, on the whole, but have always found this lovely and it's pretty apt.

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above -

Know that you aren't alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.
-Vikram Seth
posted by less of course at 7:48 PM on April 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

Sweet Darkness
by David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.
posted by daikon at 7:55 PM on April 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

Your question made me think of This Lime Tree Bower My Prison by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Especially this bit:

... Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
'Tis well to be bereft of promis'd good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross'd the mighty Orb's dilated glory,
While thou stood'st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.
posted by Cheese Monster at 8:20 PM on April 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

Another Mary Oliver:

What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go

and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself

thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up
into my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.
posted by rcraniac at 9:18 PM on April 1, 2020 [3 favorites]

Say not the Struggle nought Availeth
By Arthur Hugh Clough

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.
posted by crocomancer at 1:34 AM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

-Theodore Rothke
posted by sickinthehead at 3:03 AM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is a lovely idea, thank you. Here are three contributions:

1) Consider the Hands that Write This Letter by Aracelis Girmay

after Marina Wilson

Consider the hands
that write this letter.
The left palm pressed flat against the paper,
as it has done before, over my heart,
in peace or reverence
to the sea or some beautiful thing
I saw once, felt once: snow falling
like rice flung from the giants' wedding,
or the strangest birds. & consider, then,
the right hand, & how it is a fist,
within which a sharpened utensil,
similar to the way I've held a spade,
match to the wick, the horse's reins,
loping, the very fists
I've seen from the roads to Limay & Estelí.
For years, I have come to sit this way:
one hand open, one hand closed,
like a farmer who puts down seeds & gathers up
the food that comes from that farming.
Or, yes, it is like the way I've danced
with my left hand opened around a shoulder
& my right hand closed inside
of another hand. & how
I pray, I pray for this
to be my way: sweet
work alluded to in the body's position
to its paper:
left hand, right hand
like an open eye, an eye closed:
one hand flat against the trapdoor,
the other hand knocking, knocking.

2) For the Living in the New World by Shelley Wong

There are so many ways to walk through a forest—

through clover clusters, along a boardwalk

lined with skunk cabbages—to a field where we listen

to a ghost of song. The hypergreen we step through

is the opposite of Los Angeles on fire.

Any tree can become a ladder. These trees

have too many branches, but it is not my place

to revise them. I may be happiest

improvising the language a body can make

on a dancefloor. We are just learning

how female birds sing in the tropics.

Spring insists we can build the world

around us again. How has love brought you here?

My head is heavy from the crown.

We dream or don’t dream and sing

in different keys. Don’t go down the river

without looking back. There is ocean in that tree.

3) Invitation by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Come in, come in. The water’s fine! You can’t get lost
here. Even if you want to hide behind a clutch
of spiny oysters — I’ll find you. If you ever leave me
at night, by boat, you’ll see the arrangement

of red-gold sun stars in a sea of milk. And though
it’s tempting to visit them — stay. I’ve been trained
to gaze up all my life, no matter the rumble
on earth, but I learned it’s okay to glance down

into the sea. So many lessons bubble up if you know
where to look. Clouds of plankton churning
in open whale mouths might send you east
and chewy urchins will slide you west. Squid know

how to be rich when you have ten empty arms.
Can you believe there are humans who don’t value
the feel of a good bite and embrace at least once a day?
Underneath you, narwhals spin upside down

while their singular tooth needles you
like a compass pointed towards home. If you dive
deep enough where imperial volutes and hatchetfish
swim, you will find all the colors humans have not yet

named, and wide caves of black coral and clamshell.
A giant squid finally let itself be captured
in a photograph, and the paper nautilus ripple-flashes
scarlet and two kinds of violet when it silvers you near.

Who knows what will happen next? And if you still want
to look up, I hope you see the dark sky as oceanic — 
boundless, limitless — like all the shades of blue in a glacier.
Listen how this planet spins with so much fin, wing, and fur.
posted by wicked_sassy at 7:21 AM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

This one, too!

won’t you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
posted by wicked_sassy at 7:39 AM on April 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

A bit late because I had to dig it out:

This Day by Jimmy Santiago Baca
posted by gudrun at 8:38 PM on April 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Sense Of The Sleight-Of-Hand Man.

One's grand flights, one's Sunday baths,
One's tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur. So bluish clouds
Occurred above the empty house and the leaves
Of the rhododendrons rattled their gold,
As if someone lived there. Such floods of white
Came bursting from the clouds. So the wind
Threw its contorted strength around the sky.

Could you have said the bluejay suddenly
Would swoop to earth? It is a wheel, the rays
Around the sun. The wheel survives the myths.
The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods.
To think of a dove with an eye of grenadine
And pines that are cornets, so it occurs,
And a little island full of geese and stars:
It may be the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate his life with life
That is the sensual, pearly spuse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze.

-Wallace Stevens.
posted by clavdivs at 9:35 PM on April 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale by Dan Albergotti

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life's ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:44 PM on April 3, 2020 [12 favorites]

By Thomas Carlyle

So here hath been dawning
Another blue Day:
Think wilt thou let it
Slip useless away.

Out of Eternity
This new Day is born;
Into Eternity,
At night, will return.

Behold it aforetime
No eye ever did:
So soon it forever
From all eyes is hid.

Here hath been dawning
Another blue Day:
Think wilt thou let it
Slip useless away.
posted by chavenet at 2:26 AM on April 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

A pair of poems that I discovered maybe 15 or 20 years ago, and that remain among my favorites.

By Bei Dao

Everything is fate
Everything is clouds and mist
Everything is beginnings without ends
Everything is a search for something that always escapes
Every mirth is without smiles
Every misery is without tears
Every utterance is mere repetition
Every encounter is merely a first meeting
Every love lies hidden in the heart
Every memory lives only in dreams
Every hope has a footnote
Every faith is full of grief and groaning
Every moment of peace contains tumult
Every death is a boring echo that goes on and on


By Shu Ting

Not every big tree breaks in the storm
Not every seed fails to find soil and root
Not every true love vanishes in the desert of human hearts
Not every dream wishes to have its wings clipped
No, everything is not as you say

Not every flame burns only for itself
without illuminating others
Not every star only points the way in the darkness
without ever predicting the dawn
Not every song visits your ear
without leaving a gift in your heart
No, everything is not as you say

It's not true that every appeal has no echo
It's not true that every loss remains forever a loss
It's not true that every abyss means destruction and death
It's not true that every catastrophe falls on the heads of the weak
It's not true that every heart is trampled underfoot
It's not true that everything ends in tears and blood stand with no
trace of joy
The present is the embryo of the future
To hope and to fight for one's hope ---
Please put this on your shoulders
posted by daikon at 12:10 PM on April 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

Today I choose to define Virginia Wolf's The Waves as poetry:

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:24 AM on April 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

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