Together, alone

Greetings to you, poets, on this Christmas Day 2020 – and what a very unusual Christmas it is, with its festive isolation and glittering toilet roll shortages. The cliché would have it that this is a time of togetherness, but many of you are on your own at Christmas for the first time, and feeling it acutely. Some of you would love to be alone, but are trapped with the same damn humans you’ve been looking at all year. Others have chosen to spend this day alone for decades, thank you very much. All of us are bombarded with saccharine images of nuclear families gathered around a plentiful table or a brightly lit tree, when we know that the bitter reality is different for many.

In this extraordinary season, I am indeed going to ask you to meditate on togetherness, but without too much seasonal glitter. If you’re alone and lonely today, I hope this doesn’t seem like a cruel joke but another way to turn your experience into something illuminating.

Scrutinise that concept of togetherness, to see what it means or does not mean for you; and by implication, use it to think about experiences of solitude. You might balance the two ideas of ‘together/alone’, looking at each state in the light of the other. Sometimes togetherness does look much as you would expect, even in quiet moments. Bring to mind a family walk, a day of shared chores, a Black Lives Matter march. But sometimes one feels very much alone, even in a crowd – and when we are separated from our friends or loved ones, how can we meaningfully be together?

Remember, you do not have to speak about these large and abstract ideas explicitly. Make something physical stand for the idea. E E Cummings took a loaded festive image, and made it stand for loneliness and disconnection as well as celebration and togetherness. Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking doesn’t mention togetherness per se, but makes it clear that ‘we‘ shared the adventure and the disillusionment. Minnie Bruce Pratt finds community with her neighbour even though they don’t speak – ‘In the morning and the evening we are by ourselves,/ the woman next door and I.’ You might write about a Zoom call or a rock climb, a music festival when you felt ‘together’ with strangers. You might also look for the shared experiences of all who are spending today on their own – the same stars, the experience of sleep or weather. No matter where or who they are, they will have things in common.

Cliché is not just a turn of phrase, but a way of thinking. We can’t take it for granted that solitude is a trial for everyone, nor that company is an unmitigated blessing. For some, it is a blessed relief to avoid judgmental parents, small talk or the tension of a family Christmas with the ex they are still in love with. If your moment of togetherness takes place at Christmas (or whatever seasonal celebration stands in its place for you) then consider hijacking a seasonal format. Your poem might be a Christmas card message, a humble-bragging round robin or a poetic thank you note for the gift that nourishes a friendship when distance separates the friends.

For me, ‘together’ does bring one festive moment to mind – singing Christmas carols in a Peak District cavern, with friends beside me and snow blowing down around the mouth of the cave. It also, however, brings to mind a spring funeral for a friend I knew from my local pub – itself a place of great community, currently unavailable to us. At the funeral, another friend sang Graham’s favourite song. People who knew each other as drinking buddies or scruffy boaters came together as serious adults in shiny shoes, honouring a lost friend. There are many levels of togetherness in such a moment.

You too may prefer to divest the word together of its festive associations. If so, take that word for a walk. Think about what images or associations it brings to mind, without trying to shape them into a poem too swiftly. It might be a childhood afternoon making mud pies in the woods, or a teenage trip with your best mate to get matching tattoos. You might have run away with a lover– eaten or worked or travelled with friends – got stoned to the point of cosmic togetherness. Think about places where togetherness was shown by banter or eye contact – the library, the pub, the butty van by the A6, the board room or skate park. Touch on the togetherness you noticed only when it was stopped, by death or break-up. Think about family; community; friendship; partnership. Hold the word together in the back of your mind, as a sort of mood music which will influence your poem, even if the word itself never appears.

You may do all this, only in order to reject the pleasures of company. Famous curmudgeon Philip Larkin lamented that solitude was seen as a selfish opt-out. Togetherness is complicated, and your poem might need to acknowledge tension or argument. But life is always complicated. The best poetry finds a way to acknowledge that confusion, without losing focus on one theme or incident. Even the earliest human communities found ways of getting through the darkness together, by a collective act of creation; each individual making a mark which added up to something larger, by dint of shared experience.

Thanks to all those who have joined me since November, in trying to ‘leave something/ upright and bright behind them in the dark.’ There remains a real sense of mutual endeavour, respect and kindness here. We have each been working alone, but every one of you – including the quiet ones who just write privately – is a part of our community. However you spend today, I hope you feel that we are with you in some way.

Image ©Bless Yee 2020

Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

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