Robert Creeley, “The Rhyme;” Georgia O’Keefe, “Red and Orange Streak / Streak;” Ted Kooser, “Sitting All Evening Alone in the Kitchen”

“Loneliness makes you part of the largest group of people in the world,” I used to tell myself. It never worked. I felt miserable no matter how many words were applied.

Robert Creeley’s “The Rhyme” reminded me of myself when I encountered it recently. He rhymes “her” with “were” in lines of unequal length, but he also links “flower” with “recover.” The poem speaks absence, certainly. But what else does it offer?

The Rhyme (h/t Francine J. Harris)
Robert Creeley

There is the sign of
the flower—
to borrow the theme

But what or where to recover
what is not love
too simply.

I saw her
and behind her there were
flowers, and behind them

Creeley speaks of a borrowed theme, “the sign of the flower.” It strikes me as apt because of his specific presentation. “There is the sign of the flower” places him at some distance from the sign, let alone the flower. And he declares the theme borrowed, as if the sign and flowers are only the most fleeting parts of a fleeting imagination. I get this. The times so remote from romance that it was awkward to see couples on television. Or when acceptance could only be dreamed, never recognized as reality.

The poem speaks absence almost incredible, except for the fact we can ask anyone about being alone and hear story after story. Part of the problem with an imagination subordinate to loneliness is that the way to recovery mixes with the way to despair. Both engage “what is not love.”

Creeley concludes with a third stanza that serves as a painting. “I saw her / and behind her there were / flowers, and behind them / nothing.” He pictures a woman in front of a wall of flowers, so full of flowers it cannot be real. It’s an image of the unreal—maybe love was had, maybe it looked or looks real—but nothing grounds it. This is “what is not love,” a vision. It can cause pain, be recognized for what it is, or both.


“The Rhyme” introduces the problem of absence, ending with a glimpse of a possible present.

Those struggling with loneliness can appreciate a number of pictures, though. I remember wanting to be absorbed in the awesome. To witness and partake in the spectacular and share.

Georgia O’Keefe speaks of “Red and Orange Streak / Streak” as inspired by lightning. A landscape made and seen by godly power, it appears volcanic, primordial. A red orange streak like an empty patch of sky cuts across the canvas, above it a cloud-shaped darkness. But the painting is dominated by a giant arc, brilliant as lightning but evoking sunlight. Its center is yellow leaning white-hot. One might feel, from its position, that it emanates from the viewer.

Georgia O’Keefe, “Red and Orange Streak / Streak” (1919), oil on canvas. Courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Wikipedia.

Awe cuts through cloudy confusion, reshapes the world. But does it empower? So much depends on the ability to share, to give and receive. As I write this, people around me loudly talk on the phone to each other. They’re barely able to hear each other but the noise is immense.


Ted Kooser’s “Sitting All Evening Alone in the Kitchen” returns us to a quiet, all-too-personal loneliness. “Personal,” perhaps, deceives. His first stanza: “The cat has fallen asleep, / the dull book of a dead moth / loose in his paws.” In addition to speaking loneliness and violence, he recalls Frost’s “Design.” There, a spider traps and kills a moth. The not-so-subtle implication of Frost’s imagery—he describes the spider as if it were a baby—is that doctrine centered around Creation tries to deny the truth. Innocence kills. Kooser alludes to the weight of “Design:” “the dull book of a dead moth.” But the alienation he feels moves away from a more cosmic scope to things literally at hand.

Sitting All Evening Alone in the Kitchen
Ted Kooser

The cat has fallen asleep,
the dull book of a dead moth
loose in his paws.

The moon in the window, the tide
gurgling out through the broken shells
in the old refrigerator.

Late, I turn out the lights.
The little towns on top of the stove
glow faintly neon,
sad women alone at the bar.

The tide the moon directs ends up in the old refrigerator. The last glow after the lights are out is from the stove, calling to mind others at a bar, alone, drinking. The only solution to human problems is through humanity. The “sad women alone at the bar” have more than the narrator, even if one gives him the cat, dead moth, moon, tide, refrigerator, lights, and stove. To that end, “loneliness makes you part of the largest group of people in the world” is less a statement of consolation and more of a difficult—perhaps impossible—imperative. What crushed me before was that necessity, which requires not just recognition, but emotional resources and those beyond.

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