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Friends, "Alone," a poem by Maya Angelou

Subthemes: Alone or Lonely, Wealthy or Celebrity, Loss and Grief

Maya Angelou’s “Alone” speaks to the difficulties for all of us if we lack friends. All of us need support in this hard-hearted world. Nobody can make it by themselves. A friend, for her, would be a soul mate, a close companion who buffers you and strengthens you when water parches and bread hardens. The poem raises several other points about friends.

“Alone” by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

[refrain omitted]

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

[refrain omitted]

Alone or Lonely: Angelou suggests that being alone – which I take to mean friendless – hurts the most, as you are lonely in a cruel world. “Alone” and “lonely,” however, are not synonyms. Being alone simply means no one else is present; being lonely means you wish you had a companion (a pet or a person). Introverts can be alone, all by themselves, and be perfectly happy without a thought to being lonely. A solitary existence does not mean a sad existence for those who are self-reliant. They are more self-sufficient and independent than extroverts, who draw energy from and flourish around other people. Introverts relish their Walden Pond and deny feeling isolated or lonely. Extroverted people thrive in groups or at least hanging out with buddies and they fret if no one else is around. Robinson Crusoe was alone and might certainly have been lonely. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argues that in the United States, a malaise spreads because we have become increasingly disconnected from one another as social structures that held us together have weakened. The cure for loneliness is friendship.

Wealthy or Celebrity: Money can’t buy the reassurance and pleasure of a beloved friend who will come runnin’. Angelou knows that millionaires can be friendless, with hearts of stone, and wretched because:

But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Nor does being celebrity mean you can trust fans or supporters, let along hangers-on who glom onto you. The entourage that inevitably maneuvers to envelop and leach off of a famous or wealthy person cannot be counted as friends. Rather, they may be con artists, users or manipulators with their own agendas; whoever is the center of their attention, the King to his courtiers, should suspect seemingly good intentions and genuineness. Am I being taken advantage of? Does he like me for myself or because I am a wealthy heiress? Does she like me as a man or because I pitch for the New York Yankees? Parasites could care less about you as a person, whereas a devoted friend isn’t swayed by your newsworthiness.

Loss and Grief: Angelou’s poem sounds a warning about the value of friends during troubled times:

Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan

We need all the support we can give and get for the race of man to survive the challenging times ahead, and even more our personal travails. Even more so if we are alone because we have lost a sister, a husband, and long-time friend.

Given the emotional ties that undergird strong friendships, it is no wonder that “with friends like that, who needs enemies.” We drop our guard around friends, we speak candidly, and show our truer selves, all of which creates vulnerability. People’s interests diverge over time, and the feel-good of familiarity dies down, perhaps replaced by boredom or dislike. Cleavage can be expected, and it hurts. But worse can befall a friendship.

Tennyson wrote after his beloved friend died, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Well, that’s his view. Others grieve for a lifetime the death of a best friend or spouse, or an angry rupture with someone they once held dear, both of which anguish the heart as much as a bitter divorce. Grief and pangs of emptiness cloud the life of the one who remains (read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to experience the ache). Shackle yourself to your steadfast friends, the ones you can’t wait to picnic with, even at the risk of heartache down the road.

 

This well-known poem by Maya Angelou speaks plainly to the strength that comes from having friends, from not being alone to face the world. Even people showered with money, fame, or power need enduring, trusted friends, because of the morality-bending attraction of privilege.

If you are interested in other thoughts on the concept “Friends,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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