Isolation, Solitude and Loneliness

“The medium of poetry isn’t language, really; its human loneliness, a loneliness that poets, having received it themselves from earlier poets, transfer to their readers. Like bees in a honeycomb, writers and reader experience isolation and solitude communally and collaboratively.”

–from Dan Chaisson’s review of Olena Davis’s new book of poems in The New Yorker, December 8, 2014

Chaisson gets his underlying idea from Harold Bloom who says that poets create an “otherness” such that loneliness is “created and alleviated at once.”

I’m not sure I agree with this narrow definition. However, and without getting too far into the weeds, I would add that our frenetic culture has given the idea of loneliness a bad rap.


10 responses to “Isolation, Solitude and Loneliness

  1. I agree with you, Burl, about that bad rap. Loners, outsiders, Marlene Dietrichs, are always suspect to conventional minds. I prefer the word solitude to the word loneliness…something I’ve pondered and read about for a long time. The ability to be alone and not be frightened–even to enjoy it—probably does have some connection to the practice of writing poetry.


    • I have a favorite story of Marlene Dietrich singing to troops along the front lines and in great danger during WW II, privately and without stain of publicity. She was a magnificent loner. It took me a lifetime to learn to be alone, or to use your phrase, to be in solitude. I do think it helps my writing.


  2. Your conclusion brought it home for me, actually; we do undercut loneliness. While solitude brings calm and is revered, loneliness, though equated with suffering, brings yearning which I can’t help but believe is necessary in any type of creation. Having said that, I know that in my own work, language is paramount. Loneliness is not unique but language can be. Loneliness might compel a poet to write but language compels people to read. So today I’m going to have to conclude that language is the medium. Though tomorrow, who knows. I’m very wishy-washy that way.


    • Yes, loneliness brings yearning which can fuel creativity. I like that a lot. Maybe poetry can also help reveal that loneliness is an illusion, though I’m still working on that one.


  3. Melissa Shaw-Smith

    My 2 cents: While loneliness (or solitude, which I prefer) may very well be a necessary state to the creation of poetry, I believe that poetry comes from our innate desire to communicate — to share highly personal experiences, and yet strike a chord of commonality in the reader.


    • Agreed. And oddly, the more personal, the universal in many instances. To me that is one of the biggest challenges in this art form — the incredible honesty it demands.


  4. Shared loneliness (isolation, solitude) is (are) oxymoron. When I’m reading Gravity’s Rainbow, or anything by Mark Strand, I often don’t know fully what the author is talking about but there are commentaries in print that help me see what I’ve missed on the first 30 or so readings. Whatever is utterly unique is also incommunicable. There is stuff like this around, and we can point to it but we can’t talk about it, like suchness. What passes for utter uniqueness (“nobody’s ever hurt like this before”) is far more public than it yet knows. Yet, knowable. In Buddhism the world around us is knowable as a web of co-dependent origination, or unknowable but intuitable as suchness.


    • A great contribution and also a throw down! I just ordered Gravity’s Rainbow, and from yours and other descriptions, it sounds like quite a project. On utter uniqueness, I was thinking pretty literally and linguistically, but I take your point. The separate link to “suchness” opens up a whole new avenue! I’m pretty new to the term as my understanding of Buddhism is limited and recent. I had to go to Wikipedia for this definition which I like a lot: “”In its very origin suchness is of itself endowed with sublime attributes. It manifests the highest wisdom which shines throughout the world, it has true knowledge and a mind resting simply in its own being. It is eternal, blissful, its own self-being and the purest simplicity; it is invigorating, immutable, free… Because it possesses all these attributes and is deprived of nothing, it is designated both as the Womb of Tathagata and the Dharma Body of Tathagata.”


  5. You might also find this great poem speaks to the issues raised. It is John Ashberry reading his poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, taken from Ron Silliman’s blog. You’ll have to clear your calendar for half an hour to listen.


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