Poet, Heal Thyself

Can the antidote to loneliness be found in our work?

Poet, Heal Thyself

Loneliness has a grasp that never exceeds its reach. Loneliness has the best speechwriters. It is a living alloy bonding covalent to base metals of the heart. Or a baste of pure brine over poultry; that is loneliness’ taste. Its maxim of wisdom: I will never leave you, madam. There is a nerdiness to loneliness that doesn’t equate to melancholy and isn’t the second cousin of solitude.

Jane Hirschfield said that longing can be the way to get over writer’s block, which can feel like a paradox when loneliness gives the block its geometry. At my day job, we are emphatic about play and work (“plork” being the portmanteau left from our MFA founders), but playing alone cannot be a cure for feeling alone.

Sure, we have the legacy of surrealist games — we have the exquisite corpse — but mostly I am here with my one-way friendship with the keyboard and its avarice. Greedy little qwerty goblin and its penchant for just repeating in some mocking tone whatever I have already said. But honestly, who would I be as a writer if I didn’t have the slice of a narrative which lionizes my loneliness overcome?

Success is the naked emperor, but the whole world’s a nudist colony.

And then there is the poet in one’s own room. There is the activist at the barricade wondering if a protest of one is enough. There is the lonely head that wears the crown, but as Hanif Abdurraqib reminds, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. So, what then? Just ennui forever? Just the living questions of Rilke? Just a search for slow justice? Like a miracle of marginalia, enter the poem.

Poems have rarely left me lonely but have made me understand my own loneliness. I don’t subscribe to the aphorism that all poems are prayers (particularly if the poet saying so cannot answer the question, “What does it mean to pray?”), but maybe there is something sacred about them anyway. Maybe there is a transubstantiation that moves us closer to the capital-T Truth. And poems — with their way of reframing our imagination, their sense of interjection in the monotony of language, their sheer luck in countering our loneliness — are as close to the divine as we’re going to get.

But, I digress. I don’t pretend to any poetic apologetics. No need for new gods. I guess, instead, I’m searching out whether the pilgrimages we move through — aging, medical issues, addiction, discrimination, heartbreak, grief — all begin and end with loneliness. And if so, should the poet consider themself a crafter of antidotes or simply a practitioner of palliative care? Maybe the world, instead of arguing whether poetry is dead or if poetry can matter, should be asking, “Poet, can you heal thyself?”

Ultimately, the answer may be, “No, I can’t,” which is a kind of loneliness. But then, like a miracle, enter (the poems of other people), and one becomes a little less agnostic. 

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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