On Annie Dillard, Marie Howe, and Finding the Poetry in Conversation
One night when I couldn’t sleep, I decided to listen to the latest On Being podcast, which was a really arresting conversation between Krista Tippett and a poet I’d never heard of, Marie Howe. There were so many words, lines, thoughts that stood out to me as I listened, and I kept thinking, I should write these down. But then they were more than just thoughts; it all sounded like a poem to me.
When I was about 19 or so, I found a book of poems in the library by the amazing Annie Dillard, who’d written a book that had recently blown me away (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, of course). Annie handled words like a cross between an athlete who performs stunning feats without a second thought [apparently] and an astronaut who sits on a thin ledge between life and death and fixes some billion dollar spaceship part with a jerryrigged toothbrush. (Okay, that sentence proves that I’m not Annie Dillard. w00t!)
My point simply being that Annie could’ve been putting out loads of volumes of profound, elegant poetry made of her own words if she wanted to, but instead, she put out this odd and brilliant book of “found” poems. Basically, she played around with scraps of words and phrases from the random sources she so delights in (e.g., an 1800s manual of boys’ projects, a Russian hunting memoir, van Gogh’s letters, the Apocrypha) and found the poetry in them. Anyway, I recalled the book and thought, Why not?
As Annie says in her Author’s Note, “I did not write a word of it.” In other words, Marie Howe said all of this. I might have contributed punctuation; I might not have.
The Poetry of Ordinary Time
an interview with Marie Howe (a found poem)
The parables and the stories—
all those great old stories—
so much mystery and complexity.
The story’s all there, but we know
that the story, the real story
The spaces in between.
You can hold what can’t be said.
The mystery of being alive;
a basket of words that feels inevitable.
A counter spell.
This is what we all need to walk around with.
Maybe the first poem
was a lullaby a woman sang to her child,
the incantatory everything is okay, everything is okay, everything is okay.
We prayed for rain, or we thanked the gods for the corn,
or we sang to the deer we were going to catch.
Its roots can never wholly be pulled out from
Language is almost all we have left
of action in the modern world,
unless we’re in Syria or we’re in Iraq.
Action has become what we say.
In a big house different people experience different things.
Trauma shatters a unity. You are now in separate shards.
As much as you want to be all in the same room,
trying to speak to another,
shard to shard.
When I was a girl, I would have to go to the backyard and
every cigarette butt.
I would think of Saint Teresa.
Just do every act as a prayer.
Then my father would come out and say,
You’ve missed this one, this one, and this one.
Everything in the world is trying to tell us this now,
even as we’re speeding up and speeding up,
and speeding up, and staring into our screens.
It hurts to be present.
Rinsing the glass
under the water.
Slow down enough to just
simply be there.
My daughter used to say to me,
Mom, slow down. If you slow down, you’re going to get there faster.
Just watch. See that white car? Slow down.
Then we would get to the place and she’d say,
See, the white car is behind us.
When you’re very sad,
the only thing to do is to go learn something.
Write 10 observations of the actual world.
Just tell me what you saw this morning
in two lines.
I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth.
And the light came through it in three places.
You have to actually endure the thing itself,
which hurts us for some reason.
It hurts us.
We want to say,
It was like this. It was like that.
We want to look away.
And then they say,
There’s nothing important enough.
And then its whole thing
is that point.
No abstractions, no interpretations.
Then this amazing thing happens.
Clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff, and it thrilling.
The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, the maple tree, the blue jay.
it almost comes clanking into the room.
somebody was drawing on the sidewalk in blue chalk.
All it said was HAPPINESS,
with a big blue arrow, THIS WAY.
I was waiting for my daughter and her friends to
get off one bus to get on another.
was the big blue chalk HAPPINESS,
and a big circle drawn on the sidewalk said HERE.
And everybody who walked by stood in the circle. We did too.
This is the whole
Why would I compare that to anything
There’s a silence
in the center of everything.
Maybe that’s the thing
we are afraid of.
Silence is the heart.
It has everything in it:
our life—the universes beyond
this universe, the galaxies.
The cricket, the snow.
Such a relief;
you can rest in
The robots were going to take over
and the machines were going to take over.
Just last week it occurred to me: They have.
It’s just different from what we expected.
You think evil is going to come into your houses
wearing big black boots.
It doesn’t come like that.
It begins in the language.
What face do you look into more
than any other face in your life?
I gaze into that face.
I do what it tells me to do.
It’s different from what we expected.
It’s like sugar.
There’s this new firmament,
and there’s no one in charge.
I don’t even know what I mean by soul.
I don’t know anymore.
Real time is true;
redundancy that’s happening now.
Remember those swaths of time between high holy seasons:
Nothing dramatic is happening;
this is where we’re living.
Finally we’re stopped long enough
to feel ourselves alive.
To move through the world transparently—
that would be a relief.
All I know is that
things have happened that I don’t understand
that feel like the most important things
that have ever happened to me.
The unendurable happens.
People we love die;
we’re going to die—
one day we are going to have to leave our children,
leave the plants, the sunlight,
the rain and all that.
Art knows that
we’re both living and dying
at the same time.
It can hold it.
I thought, I can either let this crack my heart
open or closed.
I turned around and the
billion other people on this earth who’ve
lost a person they love—there they all were.
I turned around: I just joined you.
Welcome. There were millions of people;
I was glad to be with them.
We join each other;
We’re not alone.
Holding human stories up:
it’s so miraculous.
Everything is shared.