The Complexity of the Human Heart:
A Conversation with Marie Howe
Marie Howe is the author of two books of poetry, The Good Thief (which was chosen for the 1987 National Poetry Series) and What the Living Do. She has also co-edited In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. Many of the poems in her second book tell stories of living and dying with that disease, especially the story of her brother’s death. Her poetry speaks to the wisdom that can emerge from a confrontation with death, making vivid the pleasures of daily life so easy to take for granted. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University and lives in New York with her daughter, adopted from China in 2003. I spoke with her after a reading at Keystone College in La Plume, Pennsylvania.
David Elliott: You started writing poetry seriously somewhat late in life, after taking a summer class at Dartmouth. You have a line in “The Meadow”: “As we walk into words that have waited for us to enter them . . . .” Was that the feeling you had at that moment in your life?
Marie Howe: Don’t you feel as if our lives are these compositions that we don’t really know how to make end? Every once in a while we walk through a door and we realize, “My God, it’s the right door. This is the door I was meant to walk through.” I felt that when I took the class at Dartmouth. I was thirty years old, after teaching high school for years and being a journalist, and I felt like this was what I wanted to do. Of course I had doubts. I was beleaguered by doubts, but I had found a joy, and I just felt so happy. It’s hard to sustain that over time, of course, because it becomes something else as you look through it and keep going, and your own life takes different turns; but at that period of my life it felt like I had stumbled into the right room and there were clear and specific directions, and I was so, so, so grateful. And the directions were just this kind of profound sense of meaning and happiness in work that meant something to me. I didn’t even know I could stay at a desk for five, six hours working on the same thing. So I found a way of being with experience in language that made sense. It was miraculous, looking back at it—a near miss
DE: Is “Part of Eve’s Discussion” still a cornerstone poem for you? It seems to establish so effectively the interests that many of your poems have with moments of transformation, of becoming--things on the edge of change.
MH: Immanence. When I wrote that it was the first time I was really transported by writing a poem, and it was the first time I found a . . . “Vehicle” is not the right word; “metaphor” is not quite the right word either. It was a situation that was resonant of some inchoate situation in my own soul. And that situation provided a way of speech, a way of speaking about it, which is for me the struggle in writing. What Frost says, you know, a poem begins with a homesickness, with a lump in your throat, and that inchoate homesickness, that gathering of force of new feelings and thoughts. It seems miraculous that it ever finds an expression. And for me it only works one out of thirty times. There are so many poems I throw out, so that Eve poem I think was the first time that something I had been feeling all of my life found some voice through her. Let me put it this way. I say this to my students all of the time. I don’t think we really have very much to tell poems; I think poems have a great deal to tell us. That was the first poem that actually spoke to me, and I think that was a cornerstone and a beginning, like the poem itself could talk.
DE: How much did you have to work at the music of poetry? Is it something that came really naturally to you? It is certainly important to your work.
MH: Poetry to me is oral; it really should be said out loud. Now this third book might not be. It might be something you’d want to read quietly to yourself, which is weird. But I grew up with the Bible, with all that parallelism and anaphora and the rhythms of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the sound of that Hebrew prosody. So it’s that kind of music in most of the poems. And I also think it is my desire to have them be experiences that actually happen between the speaker and the hearer so that they happen in the air. That has been important to me.
DE: Stanley Kunitz’s blurb on The Good Thief refers to you as “a religious poet.” Do you wear that label comfortably?
MH: I was horrified when I read that. Then I understood. I’m obsessed with the metaphysical, the spiritual dimensions of life as they present themselves in this world, so I understand what he means. “Religious” sort of scared me at first, but it’s okay; I accept it now. I think a lot of women writing now are religious poets or spiritual poets.
DE: Who comes to mind?
MH: Brenda Hillman, Jean Valentine, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Cooper. . . Jane Kenyon I think was a very spiritual poet. A lot of the women I read I think are concerned with that. Jorie Graham is a metaphysical poet. I love the metaphysical poets of the 17th century. I love Donne and Herbert. So I am more at ease with what Stanley wrote now than when I first saw it.
DE: In an article in APR by Ira Sadoff he was talking about dichotomies between a more traditional approach to poetry and post-modern, language-based poetry. One of the oppositions he developed was between organic unity and (to use a phrase from your poem "Memorial") “post-modern brokenness.” When I read that poem and its reference to Carolyn Forche and the obsolescence of the personal narrative, I wonder how to take it because I think of much of your poetry as being personal narrative. In that poem when the speaker says, “James doesn’t understand,” it sounds as if she feels drawn to brokenness because of feeling devastated by Billy’s death.
MH: I think it is an ironic statement: “He doesn’t understand that the personal narrative is obsolete.” I love Carolyn and I admire her as a poet and as a person in the world, but that book threw me, The Angel of History. Our friend Billy had just died and I was reading The Angel of History and Carolyn does say it is in a bunch of voices because the personal narrative is obsolete, or something. It was one of those weeks where I was gripped by despair, because I do argue with the personal narrative. I love stories. Stories have saved my life, and I also question stories even as I tell them. Organic unity in the old sense can’t exist anymore since we blew up Hiroshima and Nagasaki and since we know we are no longer who we think we are. But something does remain. Was it Hopkins who said, “A taste of self”? I guess I still believe in the soul even if I don’t believe in identity. So that particular poem was struggling with that, and Billy’s death had shattered a narrative that had ended in some ways with his death, a good friend of ours. I guess what I’m worried about in the personal narrative poem is the self speaking being made, even inadvertently, heroic—always, you know, the sensitive, heroic self. “Memorial” tries to undercut that by the speaker admitting to feeling anger with her friend because he carried the ashes or being annoyed with her man because he doesn’t understand the personal narrative is obsolete. It was allowing a fragmentation into the work and allowing a voice to be speaking that may or may not know her own limitations that might be obvious to a reader. I think the danger of the personal narrative poem is that we’re creating the self that is speaking. All too often we create a self we can live with.
DE: One of the things I was interested in having you talk about is the difference between your two books. The second book is much more straightforwardly personal, autobiographical even. And the first book more often works through parable and persona. Was there a transforming moment that took you from the first book to the second book? Are you continuing with that approach, or are the poems you have said you are working on for the third book turning away from that?
MH: John’s living and dying changed my aesthetic entirely. That’s solely responsible--my involvement and response to his living and dying with AIDS. I wanted after that to make an art that was transparent, that was accessible to people who don’t usually read poetry, to my brothers and sisters—wonderful, intelligent, smart people who want to read poetry if they know what to read. Regular people. And I wanted it to be the kind of talk that people talk in sick rooms, where it is very direct and very understated. I wanted to make movies without the photographer’s thumb in the way. I wanted to get out of the way and let some of these things just unwind, so people could see in and have their own experience. It became very important to me to document some of the things that happened. Of course they are still transformed, but that became important to me. And then of course that influenced the whole rest of the book, deeply. I didn’t want anything about that book to be obscure. The situation was difficult. I wanted it to have a simple surface, but to allow in the depths that of course occur every moment in ordinary life. So it was very hard, and getting started was very hard. There are no metaphors and there is no slant. That was the main reason that book changed.
Now I want never to write anything personal again. I’m struggling with it a lot. This new work is personal, but it’s also deflected through some other stories and voices. It’s still so new it’s hard to talk about, but I really don’t want to tell any more biographical stories or use those stories as ways into experience. I don’t know what happened. I really don’t. It’s still in the stages where I’m showing poems to readers and they go, “No. No. Yes. No. No.” And I realize in the last two years I’ve been swimming around.
I wish I were a different type of writer, sometimes I do. When Johnny died I was walking with Stanley Kunitz in front of my apartment building in Cambridge. It was a few months after Johnny died and I was saying to Stanley, I feel as if something has me in its mouth and is chewing me. Everyone who has known grief knows this. I hadn’t known it quite yet, but it is nothing new to everybody else who has known grief. I said I feel something has me in its mouth chewing me and there is nothing for me to do but be chewed, and Stanley said, “Yes, and you must wait to see who you’ll be when it’s done with you.” Because I wanted to write right away, and I couldn’t, and I had to wait to see who I was going to be after this experience sort of had me for a while. I feel that’s what’s happening now. I have to wait and keep writing, but wait to see what really wants to have a hold of me next and who I am and then to write the next real collection.
DE: Did you ever think of your second book as aligning yourself with the so-called confessional poets?
MH: No. I’ve always thought that was a funny word—confessional. I grew up in the confessional and the idea you can go in and tell the story of your sins and be forgiven. It’s a powerful one. I mean, was Sappho confessional? She told what it was like for her to miss somebody and be in love. Was Keats confessional? He sits outside his friend’s house all day and listens to one bird and writes “Ode to a Nightingale” because he’s so depressed. He comes right out and says it: I’m so depressed I want to go where that bird is and never come back. He makes a decision right in the middle of the poem: No, I won’t do that; I’ll write this poem instead! I know, of course, there are differences, but Catullus, Cavafy--these are confessional poets, poets who are talking about the circumstances of their lives, and their outcry comes from that. I guess I’m a little concerned about us using that word, because it seems to diminish an impulse into one thing. Robert Lowell, supposedly the first confessional guy of this century, or Sexton—I mean, you couldn’t find two more different poets than Lowell and Sexton, and yet they are both confessional poets. Sylvia Plath is supposed to be confessional, but it is so difficult to understand those last poems.
I feel like I’m talking around your question, but it’s something I’m interested in and worth dwelling on. Any story told for its own sake is not poetry it seems to me. We all have stories to tell. It’s the complexity of the human heart that I think is poetry’s subject--the complexity of the human experience. I think the best poets writing today represent that complexity in the broadest, deepest sense. So there are poets who tell personal stories but honor that complexity--Yusef Komunyakaa, for example, being an African-American man in Vietnam who writes about being in Vietnam. It’s complicated; it’s not just one thing, like, “I was in Vietnam and it sucked.” I feel very interested in the experimental poetry that is going on right now. My friend Brenda Hillman I think is a genius. I think her work is written from her soul, from her life and her concerns, and yet it also experiments with language, punctuation, interruption, and a lot of elements of postmodern language poetry, but there is still a self talking. So I think maybe when we say confessional we mean a poet who writes about one thing, beats one drum, and we are supposed to feel something for that poet that’s different from what we feel for ourselves or other people.
DE: I was interested in your saying you don’t want to write personal poems anymore. Is one of the dangers having people confuse your poetry with your life? Once I heard someone say to Sharon Olds, “Tell me, how old are your son and daughter now?” And she said, “I have no son or daughter. Those are fictitious children.”
MH: I understand what she means. For example, with that poem “Practicing,” which talks about being in the seventh grade and kissing girls in the basement, The New Yorker legal department called up and said, “Are those girls identifiable?” I said, well, Linda’s basement was like a boat and Gloria’s father did have a bar downstairs with plush carpeting, but I didn’t kiss those girls. So, yes, they’re identifiable, because the poem has great, great details from my childhood, but that to me is the answer to the question of whether it is autobiographical. It’s all constructed. I didn’t kiss those two girls. They were my best friends when I was a kid. I kissed other girls, but how could you give up those gorgeous details with those basements, and it poured into the poems. They still made me change the names. But what comes together in a poem isn’t true, and that is why I understand Sharon’s response.
I remember a man, a very lonely man, coming up to me at the end of a reading and looking into my face and saying, “I feel as if I have looked down a corridor and seen into your soul.” And I looked at him and said, “You haven’t.” You know, Here’s the good news and the bad news: you haven’t! I made something, and you and I could look at it together, but it’s not me; you don’t live with me; you’re not intimate with me. You’re not the man I live with or my friend. You will never know me in that way. I’m making something, like Joseph Cornell makes his boxes and everyone looks into them, but it’s the box you look into; it’s not the man or the woman. It’s alchemy of language and memory and imagination and time and music and sounds that gets made, and that’s different from “Here is what happened to me when I was ten.” That poem is a good example. Linda’s boat basement and Gloria’s plush carpeting were there, but they weren’t there there.
DE: In the same way that your poetry has gone through these two phases at least, with the third to be announced, has your attitude toward language or the degree of faith you have in language been altered?
MH: That’s a really good question. This week I have no faith in language. I must tell you I don’t, but that’s my own failing, not language’s. I feel like it’s the last outpost for us humans. I take it very seriously. I feel language has been utterly cut off by this culture and used in the service of consumerism and that poetry insists on the integrity of words, of a word. The confessional mode in poetry might be spent, but it’s so interesting that the memoir keeps crashing and crashing on our shore more and more and more. Why do we want to hear these stories? Why do we want to know what was it like for you? What was it like for you? The language itself I feel is endangered more than it has ever been. To try to say what we mean, to try to make something beautiful and meaningful from language, feels to me like a profound political act still and a spiritual act.
It’s terrifying, really terrifying what Madison Avenue and people who sell things are doing. I feel like poets and writers are the monks writing illuminated manuscripts, in the sense of trying to preserve the integrity of language, just to expand the possibilities for expression, because the culture is trying to push us into the same twenty words over and over again.
People now want the information fast and they want a certain kind of information that they can eat, essentially, instead of dwelling with mystery. Negative capability, Keats called it—to dwell with uncertainty without grasping after an easy solution. A poem often asks us to dwell there, and it’s unbearable, especially if you have no practice, if you don’t read or if you don’t go off by yourself and sit alone for a while. Even those of us who write, we’re often rushing around. So this dwelling, not fully comprehending something instantly, is very difficult. Anything that pushes us into the depths of our being is very hard to bear. I find it hard to bear. Sometimes I open a book that’s so beautiful I have to shut it because it hurts me. I can’t stand it. It’s like, Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! This is going to drive me into my own heart. A day or two days later I’m saying, All right, and I just surrender to it: Do it to me. Go ahead. I want it. I don’t want it. I want it. I don’t want it.
David Elliott is professor of English at Keystone College in La Plume, Pennsylvania. His interviews with poets, including William Stafford, Robert Creeley, Naomi Shihab Nye, and W. S. Merwin, have appeared widely.