Maya Angelou is someone who is well-known for her rather distinct writing style that tends to result in free-style poems based heavily in bluntly honest commentaries on life as seen through her own eyes. Angelou’s own experience shines through in her literary style and presents itself with an air of knowing and a sense of wisdom to her words. Alone is an example of her work that embodies this description strongly; the titular concept is something that everyone can relate to in some form or the other, and this brings life into Angelou’s metaphors and ideas in a personal and relatable way. Angelou’s style stays with the reader and is designed to make them think deeply about the topic, and Alone is a poem that is clearly determined to achieve this goal.
The first verse of Alone, which can be read in full here, makes it immediately clear that Angelou is not adhering to particular syllable or rhyming conventions; it is written freely, but not without particular thought. Mid-verse, for instance, the third through seventh lines are all between six and seven syllables long, and use rhyme through the words “home,” and “stone.” That these lines are also “sandwiched” by a set of two two-word lines is also a choice that adds to the flow of the verse. Only the last line stands alone, which emphasizes its powerful message.
The content of the verse makes heavy use of metaphor to describe the speaker’s state of being. The depiction of “finding the soul a home” is a difficult message to convey without literary devices, and Angelou uses metaphors here. Home is a place “where water is not thirsty / and bread loaf is not stone” according to this verse. On some level, these are clear oxymorons — water, being wet, cannot desire liquids, and bread is actually not stone; it is bread. On an abstract level, water and bread are representations of the sustenances required for life: food and drink. If the water is thirsty and the bread is stone, then they are lacking water and nutrients respectively, which is another way of saying that they are useless; they are not performing their intended tasks. It is possible, then, that the speaker is suggesting that where they are now, their spiritual nourishments (not necessarily referring to religion, but rather to something deeply personal and intimate) are not truly being met. The sustenance their soul has to make them feel alive would be like eating stone or drinking dust; it is not enough.
The last few lines of the first verse, coupled with the three lines of this stand-alone thought suggest that the deeper meaning behind this unsuitable nourishment is loneliness. Without another person, a partner, by their side, they simply don’t have the sustenance required to “make it.” They need another person; their soul requires that other person there. In these three lines, the words “alone” and “nobody” are repeated enough to dominate (they make up nearly half of the content of the verse!), and are clearly indicative of the idea that is supposed to stick with the reader.
The next verse begins by repeating the convention of the first one by rhyming off several lines in an ABACDE fashion. It is still distinct from the style of the first verse, lacking the brief two introductory lines, but holds to a similar style otherwise, including the last three lines, which are repeated from the first verse for additional emphasis.
This verse goes on to discuss the idea of people who have hearts of stone and rich bank accounts who, despite having wives and children, are also alone in the world. The expressions of their wives “running around like banshees” and children singing “the blues” are both set up to portray a great deal of noise in the lives of these individuals; and yet, they are light and almost superficial descriptions. These are not the first things that should come to mind when writing similes about wives and children, and they don’t portray either entity in a particularly flattering manner. It is likely that this verse is meant to portray individuals who have large sums of money who prefer to focus on those large sums of money rather than the world around them. In that sense, they are as alone as someone who has no wife or children at all.
The repetition of this verse continues to solidify a sense of rhythm and form to this poem, and to continue to instil in the reader its primary message. Despite the millions of dollars in the bank accounts of the individuals described earlier, the speaker considers them to be alone, and so they are no different than the speaker as described in the first verse — their souls are deprived and they are not living life fully.
The last verse takes on a very general approach to the concepts discussed earlier, and seems to be trying to sum them up as best as it can. The speaker is talking directly to the reader, They describe storm clouds and moaning winds in an attempt to create gloomy imagery, and then states very simply that “the race of man is suffering.” It is as though the argument they describe is that the default state of humanity is to be in pain for as long as they are alone. The storm described in this verse seems to exist solely because of the loneliness of the individual described, whether the speaker of the verse lying awake at night, or that millionaire with the banshee-like wife and bluesy children.
This final chorus-like repetition of this poem attempts one more time to drive home its simply stated point: no one can get through life alone. It is simple, it is powerful, and it is repeated just often enough to stick with the listener just as intended by the author.