Have you ever listened to a gospel choir in concert? The sound FILLS the room. It sends shivers down your spine, brings tears to your eyes, and makes you forget about everything else but the music.
We like to think of this poem as just that sort of sound. Sure, it starts out with just one voice, singing (or, if we're being precise, speaking) but by the time we get to the first refrain, it starts to sound like there's more than one voice involved here. And by the time that our speaker starts to address the problems of other folks in Stanza 3, she's already dealing with the whole community. It's safe to assume that she's no longer talking to herself in bed at night. She's got an audience. And from the sound of things, they're taking an active part in creating the refrains of the poem.
Try reading this poem all by yourself. Then try reading it with a few of your friends. You'll see what we mean. The refrains are meant to be choral pieces. They just sound better when a whole bunch of people are speaking along together. And that's part of the hopeful message of this poem. If you imagine the refrain being spoken by a choir of voices, then the poem itself is already moving outside the spaces of isolation and alone-ness that the speaker so hates. Nifty, huh?
Well, if there's one word that appears in this poem more times than any other, it's "alone." It makes sense (mathematically speaking) that the mode for the poem should also be its title.
If we're doing more than counting words, though, "Alone" starts to become a slightly problematic title. Just who is it that's alone? The speaker? The reader? The community at large?
The answer to all of those questions is "Yes." Just about everyone this poem discusses is alone. (Yes, that means you, too.) And we're not talking "Hooray! I ditched my baby brother and FINALLY have a few free minutes to myself" alone. We're talking "I'm about to have an existential crisis because my life sucks" alone. There's a big difference.
Maybe that's why Angelou doesn't entitle the poem "I am alone" or "We're all alone." It'd be too depressing to pick up. So, she leaves the title ambiguous. Sure enough, it sucks us in before we even realize that we are the real subjects of the poem. Tricky, eh?
We know right where this poem begins: in the speaker's bed, late at night. Where it ends, however, is another matter entirely. You can almost see the thought bubbles coming up from the speaker's bed and floating out into the wide, wide world.
See, by the time we're in the second stanza, this poem is clearly settled in the Real World. You know, that world where some people have cash and some people don't – a world that's economically and socially stratified. There's no room for dreamy idealism, or any of the pensive nighttime thoughts that occupy the speaker's mind in Stanza 1.
And then, by the time we're at Stanza 5, we've zoomed out far enough to be able to consider the entire "race of man." In other words, we've moved waaaaay back. We like to think of it as a "Earth seen from the Moon" sort of view.
So, from one little bed to the entire world at a glance? It seems like setting just isn't this poem's most important focal point. Or perhaps it's important that the setting shifts – if only because the problems that our speaker finds remain the same. Whether you're in your own bed at night or watching the rich and famous (probably on reality TV) or looking at the Earth from the Moon, you're probably alone. Or at least you feel alone.
When we get right down to it, this poem centers itself on an emotional landscape: the homelessness of the human soul. The roving, searching heart has no home- which is perhaps why we move from setting to setting in this poem as well.
The speaker in this poem is a funny sort of character. She starts out as your regular, run-of-the-mill insomniac, a person who lets all sorts of thoughts run through her head because she just can't seem to sleep.
By the end of the poem, however, the speaker's become something like our cultural conscience. She seems to know – and see – all of our suffering. And we do mean ALL of our suffering. This speaker seems to be blowing a warning horn. Things aren't getting any better. In fact, they seem to be getting worse. And as the crisis reaches its tipping point, our speaker's omniscience only seems to increase.
We've got to admit, though, this speaker plays a rather dirty trick on the reader: she promises us some sort of revelation, letting us know that she's about to reveal what she knows (line 22), and then she tells us…. nothing.
OK, it's not nothing. But she sure doesn't give us any tools to combat the alone-ness that seems to be creeping though the world like a plague. Nope. She just points out that people shouldn't be alone. Hmm, thanks. Thanks a lot. That's sort of like going to the doctor with a broken leg and being told that people shouldn't break bones. We might have grasped that the first time around. We're not saying that she doesn't have a valid point. We're just a little upset that there don't seem to be any clear solutions.
Then again, that's not our speaker's responsibility, is it? Aren't we the ones who are supposed to figure out our own problems? Well, yes. But we'd probably like the speaker a whole lot more if she could just help us out a little!
Besides the fact that this poem is (let's face it) something of a downer, it's not all that tricky to navigate. As long as you can acknowledge that your sorry, sorry soul is alone, you should be good to go!
We've got to confess – we were horribly tempted to say that Angelou's calling card was "Hallmark." But that would just be too easy.
Instead, let's focus on another one of her pet projects: exploring the cracks in American (or hey, maybe even worldwide) society. Remember that Peanuts comic strip where Lucy becomes a psychiatrist and offers advice for 5 cents? That's pretty much what Angelou's speaker is all about.
"Alone" lives somewhere in the no man's land between formal regularity and an absolute free-for-all. There are some absolutes: every other stanza, for example, is exactly the same. (We're talking about stanzas 2, 4, and 6 here).
The first, third, and fifth stanzas are another story. They all have nine lines – unless you count the first stanza, which has ten. (We could argue that the first two lines of the poem are actually one split line, but that's another story.) And those lines tend to have six or seven syllables – unless, of course, you're talking about the 7th or 8th line. Those have four syllables each.
Confused yet? We don't blame you. Here's what we do know: there's not a metrical or formal regularity to this poem. There is, however, a sort of formal logic to the way that the poem's narrative unfolds.
Think of it as a camp song: the camp counselor lays out a little bit of a story (six lines of it, to be precise) and then sings a verse that's easy to remember (in terms of our poem, this is always the last three lines of the stanza). And then the campers sing the verse back to the counselor. (That's the second, fourth, and sixth stanzas.) It's easy to remember because, well, if you're in the chorus, you don't have all that much to remember.
Come to think about it, these sorts of call-and-response songs have been popular for centuries. They were a big part of church traditions back when it wasn't common for everyone to have hymnals. They're the format most military marching songs tend to take: the C.O. shouts something out, and the squad shouts back a reply. They're the core of most oral traditions – when you aren't able to write everything down, it's good to have a refrain as a sort of memory marker.
Hey, if something sounds good the first time, chances are it'll sound even better the second time. Or the third time. Or the twenty-eighth time. It's irrefutable logic from your childhood: if you say "Please" loud enough and long enough, eventually your mom will let you have just about anything you want… if only to get you to shut up. We're not saying that this poem is annoying and redundant in the way that you were. (Face it, you were.) We're just saying that repetition, used wisely, can be a powerful tool.
Lines 8-10, 20-22, 32-34: Want to figure out the message of this poem? You don't have to look too hard. Angelou incorporates it into the end of every other stanza!
Lines 11-13, 23-25, 35-37: And if the end of every other stanza weren't enough, Stanzas 2, 4, and 6 are identical. And they look a whole lot like the ends of Stanzas 1, 3, and 5.
When you've got a one-word title, you're almost announcing the central theme of the poem.
We'd call it solitude, but Angelou seems pretty attached to the word "alone," so we thought we'd better stick to the real thing.
The word "alone" pops up in Lines 10, 13, 22, 25, 34, 37. Angelou makes sure that "alone" is the last word on our tongues at the end of each stanza. We're "alone" at the beginning and "alone" at the end. There's just a whole lot of words in between.
Nothing to see here, folks. There's nothing very steamy about being all alone.