Love, loss, and what I listened to
Finding solace in the healing power of verse.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Café Lalo, NYC
A few months after my father died, I found myself thinking about Hamlet.
Yes, that’s right—the pensive, talkative, mildly maddening prince cooked up by Shakespeare. I'd studied the play, and even performed a few of Hamlet's monologues, but I confess I'd always found him to be...well, kind of a wet noodle.
But one day I had a startling revelation:
Of course, I thought. If my mother had married my uncle, and I thought he’d killed my father…I’d go crazy too.
I knew what it felt like to wish that my too solid flesh would melt. To try over and over to unpack my heart with words because its baggage was too heavy for me to bear. To be the child of a dear father murdered—not by my uncle (who is actually very nice) but by an insidious illness. Like Claudius, it lay in wait until my father was vulnerable and then struck him down.
Grief had invaded my body. It had rearranged my cells. And what had once seemed merely plausible, from the safe distance of a cluster of iambs, was now completely relatable—and achingly real.
Hamlet, all of a sudden, made perfect sense.
After that initial epiphany, I began to notice how the words of songs and poems took on entirely new significance once I’d actually experienced what they described. Lyrics and lines that I’d known for decades galloped through my head with shocking clarity, as though I were hearing them for the first time.
Take, for example, the night I was walking through a light spring rain on 1st Avenue, when I heard the strains of a disco song emanating from a nearby car.
It took me a moment to realize what it was. A moment later I realized it actually wasn’t. But the tune I thought I’d heard rose up in my mind like a genie bursting out of a bottle. It was a song that a particular clique of girls used to lip-synch at our middle school dances, at which it was (for some unknown reason) always played. I was never a part of that floor show, but I have a preternatural memory for song lyrics and I’d never forgotten these.
First I was afraid
I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live
Without you by my side
Then I spent so many nights
Thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along…
Striding through the Manhattan mist, I laughed out loud.
A month earlier, I'd gone through a stormy breakup, and I’d spent four tempestuous weeks experiencing every emotion that ever existed, plus a few extra. In that soggy New York moment, as abruptly as I’d realized exactly what was rotten in the state of Denmark, I understood, on a cellular level, precisely what Gloria Gaynor was wailing about.
And I knew that I would survive.
Rewind several months to the head-over-heels days I spent falling madly in love. Every jazz standard I’d ever heard came bursting to life. Every love song and I’m-not-gonna-write-you-a-love-song exploded into vivid color. I suddenly got what everybody had been singing about for centuries.
Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger
You may see a stranger across a crowded room…
I had actually met a stranger in a crowded room! Such things really happened!
If you ask me, I could write a book
About the way you walk and whisper and look…
I listened to my romantic jazz playlist for hours, soft-shoeing through my apartment, smiling all day long.
I took a trip on a train
And I thought about you
I passed a shadowy lane
And I thought about you…
Not to mention the lines of poetry that floated up to me, unbidden, from some back catalog of once-memorized school assignments.
Shall I compare thee to…
You know the rest.
It seemed I finally knew what every writer who ever lived had apparently known: that love is the most glorious wonder of the world. I wanted to sing. I wanted to dance. I wanted to write the love song of my life.
What I ended up writing, far too soon, was a song about breaking up.
Or, not about breaking up—about getting over. I had fallen before, but never from so great a height. So I finally learned what it was really like to try to get over someone.
It sucks. It’s torture. It’s like nothing else on earth. It’s the worst kind of withdrawal, the emptiest emptiness, a poisonous cocktail of shock and rage and grief and lingering longing.
No wonder so many people write songs about it.
How’m I gonna get over you, my musical crush Sara Bareilles moaned. I’ll be all right. Just not tonight.
Sing it, Sara.
It keeps me crying, baby, for you… A tiny, tinny Diana Ross called to me from the grocery store speakers. Keeps me sighing, baby, for you…
Even the oldies station was tuned to my frequency.
On my better days, I was inspired by Adele (I’m giving you up, I’m forgiving it all, you set me free), energized by Melissa Etheridge (No it ain’t that bad without you), and chilled out by Gotye (Now you’re just somebody that I used to know). But at the time, it was Tristan Prettyman who summed it up:
You have my love in your hands
But I’m taking it back
Because it’s not alright
And you already got your second chance
Sometimes a relationship just doesn’t work. Mine hadn’t. I’d been the one who insisted it was over, and I knew all the way to the darkest corners of myself that there was no going back.
But the heartbeat of longing kept drumming me awake:
And yet. And yet. And yet.
So I turned to music. I turned to poetry. And I realized that human beings have been writing verses about love and loss since the beginning of time.
By the good grace of modern technology, we can instantly access a song or a sonnet to suit our every experience of these fundamental feelings. In Spotify’s bevy of mood-inspired playlists, “Love Ballads” and “Sad Bops” might appear side by side, while the “Romance” genre contains everything from “Crazy in Love” to “Broken Heart.” On the other side of the internet, Pandora has romantic playlists in every imaginable category.
Perhaps Landon Pigg will escort you to a third date. (I think that possibly maybe I’m falling for you…)
Or the Cranberries will be willing to do your wailing. (I miss you when you’re gone, that is what I do…)
Or Alice Merton will throw the tantrum you’d like to have. (I wanna lash out, I wanna let it out…)
Meanwhile, the Poetry Foundation’s website—whose 45,000+ poems can be browsed by subject—contains, as I write this, 4,747 poems about relationships and 2,571 poems about love. Breakups don’t get their own category, but I’d be willing to bet they constitute at least half of the relationship poems.
Pick your poison, from Milton to Millay.
And of course, if you want to find out what Shakespeare had to say on any subject…there’s an app for that.
Words, words, words, as Hamlet intoned. But is that all they are? Are not words the primary tools we have for connection in an isolated age?
Nothing, of course, compares to having real, live people with whom to share one’s joys and woes. No rhyme or rhythm is a substitute for empathy or compassion. But during the solitary hours of our lives—from cleaning to commuting to whiling away a quarantine—the company of verses with which we deeply identify can be a tremendous comfort.
Feeling lost? Feeling lonely? Feeling de-lovely? You’re not alone.
In listening with new ears, I began to realize: in a world in which we increasingly focus on what separates us, the verses penned by lyricists and poets have the power to unite us. When it comes to love, loss, and longing, we can all connect, to each other and ourselves, through the beauty and fury of sound.
Most people know Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s thoughts on these subjects, whether or not they realize it was he who penned them. But his were yet another set of words that struck me anew, from an angle shifted by the weight of repeated experience:
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Or, as Sara Bareilles aptly puts it:
If I can’t have you
I’ll have to find a way to get through
Though I don’t want to
I have to do my best to recall
That I’m thankful that I held you at all.
So at the end of the day, I turn to music. I turn to poetry. I turn to Shakespeare.
The course of true love never did run smooth, he whispers.
Who made you king of anything? sneers Sara Bareilles.
The day I thought I’d never get through, sings Chris Daughtry…
I got over you.
Pull on a poem like a blanket. Tune into your favorite playlist and let the lyrics flow. And if you can’t find any words, words, words that suit your current state of mind…
What are you waiting for?