I never thought I would become a poetry fanatic (and fanatic is, for better or for worse, an accurate description of my obsession with everything from imagery to line breaks). Going into Intro to Creative Writing, I thought that I would become enamored with the creative fiction section, with crafting plotlines of prose. I was soon proven wrong.
Part of my aversion to poetry stemmed from a belief that poetry dealt too much with flowery imagery and untempered melodrama. As we read beautiful, funny, joyful, tragic contemporary poetry, however, that notion was slowly deconstructed. Then, we read a poem that contained so much in its relatively short length – far shorter than fiction, at the very least – that I lost my heart forever. That poem was “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe, and it forced me to the realization that I am completely, undeniably in love with poetry.
The poem is part of a larger collection sharing the same title, and it remains among my favorites. The poems describe the childhood of the speaker (who is Marie Howe herself, in most cases, as much of the collection is autobiographical), and how that childhood transitions into an adult life that becomes marked most significantly by her brother John’s suffering and eventual death due to AIDS. This loss is augmented by Howe’s divorce from her husband and the loss of a friend. If you’re not interested in feeling on the verge of tears, then this probably isn’t the collection for you. Personally, the fact that a poem could indeed elicit that sort of emotion from me was a revelation, so that’s what I love about the collection.
The first poem, “The Boy,” introduces both Howe’s brother and her style of writing. She describes her brother as he walks down the street to an empty field:
Hangers Hideout the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown
with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there,
and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
He’s running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair.
Those two stanzas introduce the long lines and couplets as well as the precise, understated descriptions that characterize Howe’s poetry. However, my favorite part of the poem is the final stanza:
I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was,
calling and calling his name.
It’s the perfect ending to the poem as well as the perfect beginning to the rest of the collection. The repetition of “calling and calling” adds a beautiful insistence to the poem, while “whoever he was” adds ambiguity. Recently, I realized that Howe echoes this stanza in the final stanza of “Prayer,” a later poem that depicts an older Howe who has already experienced the loss of her brother and her friend as well as the collapse of her relationship. I had already loved “Prayer” because it’s such a heartbreaking and vulnerable read. I love this part of the poem that describes her current state of mind:
This is the way it is,
the way it always was and will be –
beaten over and over – panicking on street corners,
or crouched in the back of taxicabs,
afraid I’ll cry out in jammed traffic, and no one will know me or
know where to bring me.
I love the use of “jammed traffic” as opposed to the more familiar “traffic jam.” Everything has been turned upside-down for Howe, and now she’s caught in the cycle of anxiety and depression. The idea of people needing to know where to take her makes her sound like a lost child. It feels so real because I know for me, personally, sadness is something that makes me feel very small in comparison to the rest of the world.
And then there is the final couplet:
Who was I when I used to call your name?
Once again, there is that same ambiguity introduced in the first poem, but here combined with the larger context of “Prayer.” The “you” could be John, could be her ex-lover, could be God. And then there is the idea of the speaker’s identity as being connected to the pronouncement of that name… Somehow, Howe manages to say more in twelve words than I could in one hundred.
That is the skill that so attracted me to “What the Living Do.” The poem opens with an address to “Johnny” and continues to include description of the clogged kitchen sink, the open living room windows, and dropped groceries. The conclusion? “This is what the living do.” Those words gripped me by the throat and refused to let go. The poem ends with, “I am living, I remember you.” Through the simple imagery, Howe conveyed the very meaning of life to me at that moment I first read the poem in my Wesley dorm room. Living is how we remember those we’ve lost. And the everyday is an essential part of living. The idea that these exact descriptions of very ordinary actions could build to such a climax that made me feel more emotions than I could describe was revolutionary. I want to be able to make people feel when they read the words I write.
And so yes, in the end, I decided that I want to write poetry. This once-reluctant poet is currently taking Advanced Poetry and is all signed up for the Poetry Workshop in the spring. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.