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Program notes by Peter Aaron on behalf of the poet’s reading for Counterbalance Poetry on Tuesday, May 6, 2008.
Good evening. Welcome to you all—and congratulations for being here tonight. Two more thank-you’s are called for before going on: thank you Jeffrey and Roger for making this evening possible; and thank you Marie for being here—and for this wonderful new collection of poems, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.
This is—of course—the third Marie Howe collection—following in sequence after The Good Thief in 1988, and What the Living Do, 1998. And I think these dates are significant—because here we have that rare artist with the skill, the determination, the patience, and—I suspect—the ruthlessness—to permit each crop the full measure of time it requires to reach the state of perfect ripeness before sending it off to market. And for this reason these volumes endure, will endure.
It’s customary in these introductory exercises to attempt some words of framing—or context—or commentary—a job of which I’m perfectly incapable. So instead, let me offer a very short story which might speak to the task—and has at least the incidental virtue of being true. A few weeks ago I had a customer in the store who said to me, I don’t know what I’m looking for, I’ve grown so stale on everything I’ve been reading, can you help me find a fabulous book? So, without asking the questions I should to help narrow the field, I led her to the poetry section and picked up this volume—The Kingdom of Ordinary Time—from the table. And a look of panic spread over her face and she said, I—don’t—read much poetry, and I said, Then this might be perfect—listen. And I opened the book at random and read a poem aloud—it happened to be “Annunciation,” from the Poems from the Life of Mary section. And when I finished she said, Oh, it’s beautiful, and I said, Yes, every word is a gleaming tool used in precisely the right place—precisely the right way—the only way. And then she said, It’s very tough, and I said, Yeah—there’s not a soft spot in it anywhere. And then she looked at me and asked, What does it mean? And I answered in the only way possible—I reread the poem to her.
With poetry in general—and particularly with poems this magnificent—the less discussion—the less analysis—or—God forbid—interpretation—the better. The poem is best served—we’re best served—by just letting it breathe—letting it sing. And so the only words I can find to attempt to provide a welcome mat—to even begin to express adequate admiration for this art—are these few lines from Emily Dickinson—this country’s great poet—and Marie Howe’s direct forebear:
Of its Voice—to affirm—when the Wind is within—
Ours, then—tonight—the sublime pleasure to sit in this chapel—how appropriate—and bask—in divine melody. Please welcome Marie Howe.
“Marie Howe's poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life. Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.” —Stanley Kunitz
Marie Howe is the author of two volumes of poetry, The Good Thief (1998), and What the Living Do (1997), and the co-editor of a book of essays, In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (1994). Her third volume of poetry, Kingdom Of Ordinary Time is forthcoming. Stanley Kunitz selected Howe for a Lavan Younger Poets Prize from the American Academy of Poets. She has, in addition, been a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College and a recipient of NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, Agni, Ploughsahres, Harvard Review, and The Partisan Review, among others. Currently, Howe teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia, and New York University.
Marie Howe wowed readers and critics alike with her first book of poems, The Good Thief. Selected by Margaret Atwood as the 1989 winner of the National Poetry Series, the book explored the themes of relationship, attachment, and loss in a uniquely personal search for transcendence. Said Atwood, "Marie Howe's poetry doesn't fool around . . . these poems are intensely felt, sparely expressed, and difficult to forget; poems of obsession that transcend their own dark roots." Howe sees her work as an act of confession, or of conversation. She says simply," Poetry is telling something to someone." The Boston Globe calls her work, "a poetry of intimacy, witness, honesty, and relation."
Howe's equally acclaimed second book, What the Living Do, addressed the grief of losing a loved one. "The tentative transformation of agonizing, slow-motion loss into redemption is Howe's signal achievement in this wrenching second collection," said Publisher's Weekly, in choosing it as one of the five best volumes of poetry published that year. Part of the urgency and importance of Howe's poetry stems from its rootedness in real life—just ten minutes into her 1987 residence at the MacDowell Colony, Howe received a call from her brother John telling her that her mother had had a heart attack. Two years later, John died of AIDS, and her book What the Living Do is in large part an elegy to him. Howe's poetry is intensely intimate, and her bravery in laying bare the music of her own pain- but never the pain alone—is part of its resonance. Inside each poem there is also a joy, a new breath of life, some kind of redemption. "Each of them seems a love poem to me," says Howe.
collector's corner unique, limited-edition & signed works
The Good Thief
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time
An anticipated new volume from Marie Howe. Hurrying through errands, attending a dying mother, helping her own child down the playground slide, the speaker in these poems wonders what is the difference between the self and the soul? The secular and the sacred? Where is the kingdom of heaven? And how does one live in Ordinary Time - during those periods that are not apparently miraculous? These are astonishing poems by a poet known as “a truth-teller of the first order.”
What the Living Do
"Before the Fire"
Broadside created by Paul Hunter/Wood Works Press for the poet’s reading for Counterbalance Poetry on Tuesday, May 6, 2008. Printed from hand-set metal type on archival paper with original woodcut. Limited to 162 copies.
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