Columbia Professors Share Poetry on Loneliness

Alan Gilbert
ADJUNCT ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, WRITING

Loneliness is as much a socio-political condition as an existential one; it is the feeling of being cast adrift, untethered—from both others and society at large. Very few poems capture this feeling for me as powerfully and poignantly as Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Beverly Hills, Chicago from her 1949 collection, Annie Allen (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950). In this poem, the narrator and her companion (or companions) drive through a white, wealthy neighborhood in Chicago. It is not a coincidence that the speaker is isolated in a car at the dawn of postwar, segregated suburban America. The poem ends:

Nobody is furious. Nobody hates these people.
At least, nobody driving by in this car.
It is only natural, however, that it should occur to us
How much more fortunate they are than we are. 

It is only natural that we should look and look
At their wood and brick and stone
And think, while a breath of pine blows,
How different these are from our own.

We do not want them to have less.
But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough.
We drive on, we drive on.
When we speak to each other our voices are a little gruff.

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Alan Gilbert is the author of two books of poetry, The Treatment of Monuments (SplitLevel Texts) and Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem), as well as the forthcoming The Everyday Life of Design (Studio). He is also the author of a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press). He is the recipient of a 2019 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, a 2009 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and a 2006 Creative Capital Foundation Award for Innovative Literature. 

Deborah Paredez

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE, WRITING

Returning to Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude has brought me solace during these months of plague and social uprising. These poems in content and syntax and enjambment are virtuosic reminders of the sense of deep and radical relation that will see us through.

Friends, will you bear with me today,
for I have awakened
from a dream in which a robin
made with its shabby wings a kind of veil
behind which it shimmied and stomped something from the south
of Spain, its breast aflare,
looking me dead in the eye

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When I just want to dwell in my grief and isolation, I return to Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy

Look at her―It’s as if
The windows of night have been sewn to her eyes.
 
―from “Ode to History”


—and Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria.

The Skyview apartments

circa 1973, a boy is

kneeling on the rooftop, a boy who

(it is important

to mention here his skin

is brown) prepares his telescope,

the weights & rods,

to better see the moon. His neighbor

(it is important to mention here

that she is white) calls the police

because she suspects the brown boy

of something, she does not know

what at first, then turns,

with her looking,

his telescope into a gun…


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Deborah Paredez is the author of a poetry collection and a critical study. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Review, Poetry, and others. She is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization dedicated to Latina/o poets and poetry.

Lynn Xu

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, WRITING

1. “The River-Merchant’s Wife” (Li Po and Ezra Pound): 

This is probably the most well-known poem from Classical Chinese. It is also an exemplary moment for Pound’s thinking about translation as invention (the ideogram and its counterpart in the image/imagism) of both the Chinese and English language. The speaker’s loneliness is palpable in the temporality of her longing, her waiting, and it is perhaps true that all poems come from this desire to overcome the void from the one to the other. That self-possession is in fact a kind of becoming-other/becoming-plural is deeply a part of Pound’s experiment and, for me, one of the most interesting aspect of the ideogram’s European hallucination. 


While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
 
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2. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Claudia Rakine): 

In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine is thinking through the production of loneliness with the fact of racial violence and the totalizing power of this affect (this incredible sadness) that is maintained by this particular phase of late capital. I haven’t read this book in many years and don’t have a copy on hand, but the atmosphere of an already obsolescent but all-consuming media is something I remember, haunted, and haunting still, today, as the spectre of our tomorrow remains a reckoning with this artifact of our historical destiny.

I forget things too. It makes me sad. Or it makes me the saddest. The sadness is not really about George W. or our American optimism; the sadness lives in the recognition that a life can not matter. 

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3. “Lullaby of the Onion” (Miguel Hernández): 

Hernández was imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War and died of tuberculosis in prison. This is the last poem he wrote and it is for his infant son. I love this poem because of its absolute defiance of sorrow and persecution.

The onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
large and round.

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Lynn Xu was born in Shanghai. She’s the author of Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn, 2013), which was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, and a chapbook, June (Corollary Press, 2006).

Alice Quinn

ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, WRITING

 I love the poems of John Clare (1793-1864). Three favorites of my favorites were all written while he was an inmate of the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he was sent on account of his depression and hallucinations. He lived there from age 40 until his death twenty four years later. Institutions at that time—as Oliver Sacks wrote in a great piece for The New York Review of Books—were much more humane than we might imagine, and Clare had considerable freedom to take long walks and was generally thought to be comfortable. But we can feel the overwhelming sense of abandonment he suffered in the poem “I Am” and the sonnet that follows from it. And the forlornness of “How Can I Forget” is staggering and so keenly dear.

His biographer Jonathan Bate wrote of the “I Am” poems: “When he was a child Clare set out to walk to the horizon, the magical line where the sky meets earth. But the horizon is always beyond reach. As it receded, all he could imagine was an abyss at the edge of the world. Poetry took him to a better place. In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his trouble by laying himself to rest between grave and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.”

These three are among his last (of some 3500) poems, many of which were transcribed and preserved by William Knight, the asylum steward.

Pages 282, 283, and 299 from “‘I Am’ Poetry of John Clare,” Edited by Jonathan Bate (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004).

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Alice Quinn has been an editor at Knopf, poetry editor at The New Yorker and an editor of fiction, profiles, and critics’ pieces, and executive director of the Poetry Society of America. She is at work on an edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s journals. Most recently, she edited Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic (Knopf, June 2020). As of this spring, she will have taught at the School of the Arts for thirty years.

Image Credit: Gordon Johnson / Pixabay

About the author

Sylvia Gindick is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University where she also serves as a Chair's Fellow and the Online Poetry Editor of Columbia Journal.

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