The Power of Words to Save Us
May 4, 2017
Ms. Marie Howe: Emily dinkinson wrote those amazing poems. “I felt a Funeral in my Brain, / And Mourners, to and fro / Kept treading — treading — till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through.” And my students were all like, “Huh?” I’m like, “Who here has had a panic attack?” And like half the room raised their hand. I’m like, “OK, now read it.” “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down / And hit a World with every plunge…” She wrote it. She domesticated it for us. She found the language for it. So when it happens to us, we’re not alone. It’s shared, and everything shared is better.
Krista Tippett, host: When Marie Howe was a little girl, she would spend hours locked away in the bathtub, riveted as she read through the “Lives of the Saints.” She’s best known for her poetry collection What the Living Do about her brother’s death at 28 from AIDS. Poetry is her exuberant and open-hearted way into the words and the silences we live by. She works and plays as wisely as anyone I know, with a Catholic upbringing, the universal drama of family, the ordinary rituals that sustain us — and how language, again and again, has a power to save us.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Marie Howe teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is the former poet laureate of New York. She’s just published a new book of poetry, Magdalene. I interviewed her in 2013 at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Ms. Tippett: I’d like to start by hearing a little bit about the religious and spiritual background of your childhood, how you think about that.
Ms. Howe: Well, I grew up in the Catholic religion in a large Irish Catholic family. I was the oldest daughter of nine children. And all my mother’s sisters had nine or 10 kids, and my father’s sisters and brothers had nine or 10 kids. So I had literally 100 first cousins. And it was a tribal, a tribal childhood. And the Catholicism was at the center of it. We went to Mass. We had a priest who lived at our house practically, the priest who’s at the dining room table every night for 15 years.
The church was a very important aspect of life to me, the part we can’t see, the world inside the world. I was bored by the parish church we went to, and I could tell that it was all too human. But I was lucky enough to go to a school — I was dragged there, actually — I didn’t want to go — in seventh grade to the Academy of the Sacred Heart, where the nuns were so forward thinking. And it was the ‘60s, and they were way ahead of us in terms of understanding what theology had to do with social justice, service, questioning authority. And it was there that I began to appreciate that spirituality could be rigorous. It could be imaginative. And it was an essential part of living in the physical world through those women, really. But mostly, I love the stories of the Old Testament or the Torah and the New Testament. And the stories are still extremely compelling to me.
Ms. Tippett: Somewhere I read that you had a copy of Lives of the Saints that was important to you.
Ms. Howe: Well, and didn’t every girl? I mean, every Catholic girl? And, and our house was a very large, chaotic household. And sometimes you could lock yourself in the bathroom, although people would bang and bang on the door and sometimes pick the lock. But I remember hours of being in the bathtub reading Lives of the Saints and just be riveted by these lives. I’ve actually been trying to write an essay about this. Because, for me, it was the only example I knew of women who were subjects of their own life, not objects, but subjects who were choosing their own life or looking out from their own faces, who were deciding how they would live moment to moment. And there were very few examples of this around me.
Ms. Tippett: So in your childhood — and I’ve read a lot of other interviews you’ve given and some of your writings, and I don’t see you talking about the roots of poetry there, or of you being a poet. Is there any way you trace that?
Ms. Howe: I didn’t know one could be a poet and live. I read poetry, and I would read the old Harvard Classics we had in our living room. I would pour through these dusty books and try to find language that was adequate to experience, or try to find language that could somehow hold the unsayable. And some of the Mass did that. Some of the the parables do that.
I love the parables and the stores of Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and all those great old stories. They’ve struck me as poems. They hold so much mystery and complexity. A story is all there, but we know that the story, the real story is inarticulate. And I loved that. I love the spaces in between what happens. But I didn’t understand you could be a poet until I was about 30.
Ms. Tippett: And it’s quite an amazing story of how you became a poet a little bit later in life. You’d already embarked on another career. You took a summer class.
Ms. Howe: Yeah, I was teaching high school and seven and eighth grade. And my father died. He became very ill and died quickly, within four months. And so suddenly, these huge changes had happened, and I was alone. And I was reading The Once and Future King, that book. And Merlin says to Arthur, “When you’re very sad, the only thing to do is to go learn something.” So I called up my friend Dave Colley, who was the head of the department I worked for, and said, “Where can I learn something this summer?” And he said, “Go to this thing at Dartmouth. It’s called the Humanities Institute. It’s a fellowship. You should apply to that.”
So I did. And I was accepted, and I went. And you could take courses, and there was a writing workshop. And there are all these people. And the teacher, Karen Pelz, is no longer alive. God bless her. We all went round the way you do in a class to say who you are and why you’re there. And I said, “Well, I’m just sitting in. I’m not going to stay.” When everyone was finished, she said, “Well, my name is Karen Pelz, and I’m writing my spiritual autobiography.” And I just blurted out. “Who are you to do such a thing?” And she said, “I’m a poet. I’m a lyric poet.” I said, “Well, I want to do that.” And she said, “Then stay.” And I did.
Ms. Tippett: And I wonder if because you came to poetry as a profession a little bit later in life, I wonder if you — how you experienced and thought about what is it about poetry that we can’t do with other kinds of language and what need is it sating in us? How do you think about that?
Ms. Howe: Well, poetry holds — it’s like a — you can hold what can’t be said. It can’t be paraphrased. It can’t be translated. The great poetry I love holds the mystery of on being alive. It holds it in a kind of basket of words that feels inevitable. There’s great, great, great prose, gorgeous prose. You and I could probably quote some right now. Poetry has a kind of trancelike quality still. It has the quality of a spell still. My daughter came home one day and she said — she did this whole snappy thing. “Don’t make me snap my fingers in a Z formation, explanation, talk to the hand, talk to the wrist. Ooh, girl, you just got dissed.” And it’s this whole thing the girls were doing when they were 11. And I said — a counter spell. It was like a counter spell for a mean girl. And I thought this is what we all need to walk around with, a handful of counter spells. And, and poetry, when you think of its roots, is that.
Ms. Tippett: Making magic with words.
Ms. Howe: Absolutely. I mean, maybe the first poem was a lullaby a woman sang to her child, the incantatory, “Everything is OK, everything is OK, everything is OK. I’m here, go to sleep.” Or we prayed for rain, or we thanked the Gods for the corn, or we sang to the deer we were going to catch. But it’s interrelational. It’s incantatory. It feels as its roots can never wholly be pulled out from sacred ground.
[music: “Finally We Are No One” by Múm]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in conversation with the poet Marie Howe. In addition to her book What the Living Do about her brother John’s death from AIDS, she’s published three other poetry collections, The Good Thief, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and most recently, Magdalene.
[music: “Finally We Are No One” by Múm]
Ms. Tippett: This poem, “The Meadow,” I really, really love those last lines: “Bedeviled, / human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words / that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled / among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.” I mean, what a wonderful way to think about the power of language and the mystery of it, where it comes from in us.
Ms. Howe: Well, language is almost all we have left of action in the modern world. I mean, unless we’re in Syria, or we’re in Iraq. But for many of us, action has become what we say. The moral life is lived out in what we say more often than what we do.
Ms. Tippett: I’m not sure we’re conscious about that. It’s a provocative thought. So your writing in your poetry about your brother’s death is something that has been really very important for many people. And I want to talk a little bit about John. But I think what intrigued me more as I started really steeping in your work is you’ve always written a lot about family and families. And you’ve put poetry to family or you’ve put family to poetry.
Ms. Howe: Family is the stage where so much happens in our lives, the family of origin and our family of friends or children or whatever. I mean, it’s where everything happens. There were 11 people in my family, and a lot happened any given day. [laughs] There was a great deal going on — the boys downstairs playing pool, the kids in the backyard. It’s just — I mean, sometimes there would be 40, 50 people over. No big deal.
Ms. Tippett: And there are these lines of poetry where you turn these ordinary things into poetry. Like, I think this is from the “Grosvenor Road” poem. It’s lines of poetry about plumbing and the kitchen cupboard where we kept Monopoly and Life, with all those pieces missing, which you don’t have to have had a family of 40 people around to have experienced. I almost think, as we get older, we become more painfully aware of how we don’t leave our families of origin behind. And it’s kind of like because you have poetry to work with on that, it’s almost like you — I don’t know. I can’t think of it. It’s like you had Play-Doh for working with ancestral familial memory.
Ms. Howe: Mm-hmm. Yeah, my life is so different from that life. I mean, I’m raising my daughter by myself in a tiny rent-stabilized…
Ms. Tippett: And there’s only one of her.
Ms. Howe: One of her and one of me, and we’re in a tiny rent-stabilized apartment in Greenwich Village, which would be not even considered a room in my family of origin’s house. I mean, we had to have that kind of attention. No one ever got enough attention through all those people. And people in my family were afflicted by the disease of alcoholism, which brings a terrible chaos into a home as well. Things get violent, or things become very dramatic. And but that happens in so many places, so many families. Ours was no different.
Ms. Tippett: Right. And I want to ask you about a line that was in a poem called “Letter to My Sister.”
Ms. Howe: Oh, dear.
Ms. Tippett: “This no one told us there is no such thing as family.” Somehow that rings true to me, despite what we’ve just said. I’d like to ask you what you mean when you say that, when you write that.
Ms. Howe: Well, that poem was written to a sister who — in a big house, different people experienced different things. And depending on where you are and the age — and one of the things that I grew up understanding was that, multiplicity of viewpoints and truths. But that particular poem was to my sister, a sister who I love very much, who was experiencing trauma and trying to speak to how, in our case, I think, alcoholism shatters a unity. It can fragment a community so that you are now in separate shards. And as much as you want to be all in the same room, the nature of that illness fragments any unifying understanding, or even experience. So I think that’s what those lines were trying to say. One sister is trying to speak to another from that fragmentation, shard to shard.
Ms. Tippett: Shard to shard. And your brother John was 11 years apart from you in age.
Ms. Howe: Yeah, Johnny was younger than I was. But from, it seems like the minute he was born, we were intimate friends.
Ms. Tippett: You said — you’ve called him your spiritual teacher.
Ms. Howe: Yeah, he was. If he were here, he would laugh. And John and I just had that kinship. A lot of people did with John. He was charismatic and very empathetic, very imaginative, very amazing guy. He also got sober before anybody in my family did. He got sober at 23. And he lived for five more years and died at 28.
Ms. Tippett: So you know there’s this phrase that you — well, it’s in one of the titles of one of your collections, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. It’s a phrase from religious ritual. It seems to me that a lot of the really pivotal stories that you tell of moments with John of revelation for you are about sinking into ordinary time.
Ms. Howe: Well, I got to be with John the last six weeks or so. And those hours, getting to be with him and just hanging out were such a joy. So there’s a tremendous relief of just being there with him and Joe, his partner. And people would come and go, and the shade would flop against the window. And Johnny would sleep and wake and sleep and wake. And we would tell each other stories. We would tell stories forever. And just to be — being present. It seems like that’s all everybody is saying now. And it’s true.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I know everybody is saying it. Now we’ve discovered it.
Ms. Howe: But it really is true. And Johnny — that little poem where John says, “This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
Ms. Tippett: Which poem is that?
Ms. Howe: I think it’s called “The Gate.”
Ms. Tippett: Do you want to read it? Do you want to find it?
Ms. Howe: I have no idea. I almost know it by heart.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Ms. Howe: “The Gate.”
“I had no idea that the gate I would step through / to finally enter this world / would be the space my brother’s body made. He was / a little taller than me: a young man / but grown, himself by then, / done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet, / rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold / and running water. / This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me. / And I’d say, What? / And he’d say, This — holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich. / And I’d say, What? / And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.”
[music: “NY Snow Globe” by Rachel’s]
Ms. Tippett: So here’s another line from “Nowhere.” “This is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture after gesture. What else can we know of safety or of fruitfulness?” What struck me in that and also in the piece you just read, there are those tiny rituals of life in there. What was it, folding sheets, washing?
Ms. Howe: Yeah, rinsing the glass under the water.
Ms. Tippett: It strikes me that these rituals of ordinary time themselves are a little bit like poetry, these condensed, kind of economical little packets of beauty and grace that carry so much more forward than is obvious.
Ms. Howe: Well, I’m looking at your water glass now. And it’s shiny and — I mean, it really is. And slow down enough to just simply be there. It helps to have people around to remind you. Now, it’s my daughter. She used to say to me — we would be driving in the car, and she would say, “Mom, slow down. If you slow down, you’re going to get there faster.” “What are you talking about?” She goes, “Just watch. See that white car? Slow down.” And then we would get to the place you go through to pay the dollar or whatever it is. And she’d say, “See, the white car is behind us.” She was always doing — she’s a little Buddha. Sometimes I look at her, and I go, “Who are you? Are you John? Who are you?”
But yeah, well, Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I know you’ve talked to, says when you wash the dishes, wash it as if it were the baby Buddha or the baby Jesus. And well, that’s what the church used to be. I mean, it used to be that we would attend these things every week that would remind us of the sacredness of the everyday. And it’s harder to find it now.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Did you ever read Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God?
Ms. Howe: No, I want to now.
Ms. Tippett: It’s one of these old mystical texts. And it was also about prayer as partaking in simplicity. There’s a lot in there about washing the dishes.
Ms. Howe: I have to read it. When I was a girl, Saint Teresa and her practice of dailiness, and my father was sometimes extreme in his demands on us. And for a while, he was quite extreme with me. So I would have to go to the backyard and pick up every cigarette butt between the patio things. Or I would have to go do this. And I would think of Saint Teresa — I’m not kidding — and say, just do every act as a prayer, which I could do for a while. Then my father would come out, and say, “You missed this one, this one, and this one.” And it was hard.
But it seems that everything in the Western 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, though. I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them.
Ms. Tippett: Really?
Ms. Howe: They really find it hard.
Ms. Tippett: What do you mean? What is the assignment? 10 observations of their actual world?
Ms. Howe: Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason.
Ms. Tippett: It does.
Ms. Howe: It hurts us.
Ms. Tippett: You naming something.
Ms. Howe: We want to say, “It was like this; it was like that.” We want to look away. And to be with a glass of water or to be with anything — and then they say, “Well, there’s nothing important enough.” And that’s whole thing. It’s the point.
Ms. Howe: It’s the this, right?
Ms. Howe: Right, the this, whatever. And then they say, “Oh, I saw a lot of people who really want” — and, “No, no, no. No abstractions, no interpretations.” But then this amazing thing happens, Krista. The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff. And it so thrilling. I mean, it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like, “Wow.” The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean, it almost comes clanking into the room. And it’s just amazing.
Ms. Tippett: In some basic level, what they’ve done is just engage with their senses.
Ms. Howe: Yeah, and have been present out of their minds and just noticing what’s around them, which is — we don’t do. And again, not to compare it to anything. They’re not allowed. And that’s very hard for them. And then on the fifth or sixth week, I say, “OK, use metaphors.” And they don’t want to. They don’t know how. They’re like, “Why would I? Why would I compare that to anything when it’s itself?” Exactly. Good question.
So then you think, why the necessity of a metaphor? Why do you have to use a metaphor now? Not just to do it to avoid it, but to do it to make it more there. And it’s very interesting.
Ms. Tippett: Say some more about why it hurts. I mean, I remember — I interviewed Elizabeth Alexander once, and I said to her I experience poetry to hurt. I mean, I love poetry, and I often have to force myself to read it. And if I don’t feel strong enough or vulnerable enough, I can’t do it.
Ms. Howe: Yeah. Maybe it’s because it’s made of the material we use every day, the language we use every day too but in a different way. Maybe there’s something to that. It’s very interesting. I’m right now talking to people in New York state because I’ve just been named New York State poet, which is very funny to me.
Ms. Tippett: Poet laureate.
Ms. Howe: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Congratulations.
Ms. Howe: Thank you, but it’s odd. It’s an odd thing. But what I want is to try to make poetry as ubiquitous as Gap ads. I mean how can we have people bump into poetry? I mean, there’s this guy in New York. I say it’s a guy. It could be a woman. Last spring, there was somebody who was drawing on the sidewalk in blue chalk, and all it said was “happiness,” a big “happiness” with a big blue arrow this way. And I would see these around, and I thought, “This is terrific. This is really kind of wonderful. Like, ‘happiness’ is this way, that way.”
And then one day, I was waiting for my daughter and her friends to get off one bus, and we were going to get on another. And there was the big blue chalk, and it said “happiness.” And then there was a big circle drawn on the sidewalk and it said “here.” And everybody who walked by stood in the circle. [laughs] We did too.
Ms. Tippett: That’s the “this” again, right?
Ms. Howe: It’s the “this.”
Ms. Tippett: It’s whatever. It’s right in front of you.
Ms. Howe: It’s the “this.” The whole thing is the “this,” right? And it was like — and you stood in the circle, and you felt great. [laughs] Here’s where it is, the this-ness. Here it is. And we were like, “Yay.” And people went by, and they’re like, “Me next.” And there was a poem there. I mean, that was a poem. “Happiness here, stand here.”
[music: “Sunrise Your Eyes” by Drew Barefoot]
Ms. Tippett: Here’s Marie Howe reading her poem “Hurry,” written about her daughter, whom she adopted when she was 52.
Ms. Howe: “Hurry.”
“We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store / and the gas station and the green market and / Hurry up honey, I say, hurry, / as she runs along two or three steps behind me / her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down. / Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave? / To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown? / Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her, / Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry — / you walk ahead of me. You be the mother. / And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking / back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says, / hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.”
[music: “Sunrise Your Eyes” by Drew Barefoot]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen to all the poetry Marie Howe is reading for us as well as poetry from many others featured on our show at the Poetry Radio Project. That’s onbeing.org/poetry. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Sunrise Your Eyes” by Drew Barefoot]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the poet Marie Howe at a Benedictine monastery and college in St. Joseph, Minnesota. She is a former poet laureate of New York. We’re speaking about family, religion, the rituals of ordinary life, and the mystery of language — all of which converge in her work.
Ms. Tippett: You actually brought this up a little while ago about — you’ve talked about the silence at the center of every poem. When you wrote the introduction to In the Company of My Solitude, which was writing about AIDS, you said, “How do you anthologize silence? It’s here too between the pages.”
Ms. Howe: It’s interesting. I’d forgotten that, the people who couldn’t be there. Well there’s a silence in the center of everything, right? Maybe that’s the thing we don’t like or are afraid of, that silence and the center of everything.
Ms. Tippett: Well, what was it you said a minute ago that was so beautiful about — we were just talking about the craziness, business. We’re not familiar with silence anymore. We don’t know what to do with it.
Ms. Howe: We used to be. We used to be. It is so recent really that mechanisms have brought all this noise into our world. I mean, 100 years ago, gas lamps. But the silence is the heart of everything. It has everything in it. It has our death. It has our life — the universes beyond this universe, the galaxies. It has the cricket, that snow, the silence Robert Bly called the “silence of the snowy fields.”
Ms. Tippett: Bright, loud silence.
Ms. Howe: Yeah, beautiful, beautiful, such a relief. You can just rest in it. But there’s a way that the machines — I love Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, and all of those old-school science fiction writers. And remember all those books we read — maybe you read when you were a kid too?
Ms. Tippett: I did too. I loved all that stuff.
Ms. Howe: I adored it. And about the robots were going to take over and the machines were going to take over. And just last week it occurred to me, “Well, they have. It’s just different from what we expected.” Joseph Brodsky…
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That’s right.
Ms. Howe. It’s just different. And one of my teachers at Columbia was Joseph Brodsky, who’s a Russian poet, wonderful, amazing poet, who was exiled from the Soviet Union for being a poet. And he said look, he said, “You Americans, you are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.” And I was thinking the machines — what face do you look into more than any other face in your life? The face of my iPhone.
Ms. Tippett: Your screen. Yeah.
Ms. Howe: My screen. I gaze into that face. I do what it tells me to do. If aliens came down and saw us all walking around, what would we do? All of us are walking around…
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Who do they obey?
Ms. Howe: …looking into the — “Oh, they serve these machines.” I mean, the machines rule us. I have no will when it comes to my machines, to the computer, hours doing emails. I never applied for that job. What happened? It happened in 10 years, 15 years. They rule. It’s different from what we expected.
Ms. Tippett: So where do you find hope in this picture you have now of our life with machines? [laughs]
Ms. Howe: [laughs] Well, this morning — we have a new puppy. And our friend Will sent me a video he had taken of my daughter a minute before of running with the dog, so I could see her in real time running with the dog. That’s sweet. But I truly — I’m stumped. I don’t know. I feel — I’m concerned. I’ll be frank. I’m concerned. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life engaging with these machines. I don’t.
Ms. Tippett: And I feel like we’re kind of reaching this pitch where a lot of us are coming to that conclusion. And we don’t want to do without them either.
Ms. Howe: It’s hard.
Ms. Tippett: We don’t. We don’t even want to. I mean, there’s so many great things about it.
Ms. Howe: It’s like sugar.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right. It is. But it’s kind of this — can we learn to limit? Can we learn to be wise? What about — I just heard you use that term, “real time.” Real time is a new invented phrase.
Ms. Howe: It’s true. We didn’t use to call it.
Ms. Tippett: We never talked about real time.
Ms. Howe: It’s like when you go to those restaurants, and they say “homemade food,” in quotes, “homemade.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] It’s right.
Ms. Howe: It’s like, well, isn’t all food homemade?
Ms. Tippett: We actually cooked.
Ms. Howe: Yeah. “Real time.” It’s true. There’s this redundancy, I mean, that’s happening now. These are great questions. I think that many of us are used to being in several places at once and in several time zones at once. I mean that’s just how we live now.
Ms. Tippett: I also think real time is a way we talk about the news cycle, things happening in real time. But that’s also stuff we need to shield ourselves from, right? It’s not as — I don’t know. Is real time as real as ordinary time? I mean real time is pervasive, and it’s distracting.
Ms. Howe: Well, so many thoughts at once. Ordinary time originally meant to me when I would go through the missal when I was a kid. Remember, those swaths of time between high holy seasons was ordinary time.
Ms. Tippett: Yes.
Ms. Howe: And there was always coming, the coming of ordinary time, the coming of ordinary time, the coming of — and then first Sunday of ordinary time, second Sunday of ordinary time. I remember just thinking what a strange and wonderful way of talking about everyday life. And so this notion of when nothing dramatic is happening, but this is where we’re living. It’s not Easter. It’s not Christmas. It’s not Lent. It’s not Advent.
And then someone just sent me a book, a Jungian psychoanalyst has written a book. And it’s called, The Dream of Totality. Where are we when there is no center? The old gods are dead. And there’s this new firmament, if you will, which is the World Wide Web. And there’s no one in charge. So now, how do we experience this amazing Web while also retaining a sense of personal responsibility and relationship? I don’t know.
Ms. Tippett: So there’s something you wrote — I mean, just on this idea of who are, identity, I want to ask what you meant by this. Or this was in an interview. You said, “I still believe in the soul, even if I don’t believe in identity.”
Ms. Howe: Oh, gosh, what a thing to say.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs]
Ms. Howe: I don’t know what I meant. I don’t even know what I mean by “soul.” I don’t know. I really don’t know anymore. Identity means less and less to me.
Ms. Tippett: What means less and less?
Ms. Howe: Identity. Maybe that’s growing older. Do you feel that way? Like, there’s a way that — less and less and less.
Ms. Tippett: I have less need as I grow older to pin things down and tie them up.
Ms. Howe: Or to assert oneself, one’s identity in the world. To be transparent would be nice, to move through the world transparently. That would be a relief. But I don’t know about the soul. I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that some things have happened that I don’t understand. And they’re the most true things I’ve known. That’s all. That’s finally all I can say. I mean, some things have happened that I don’t understand that feel like the most important things that have ever happened to me.
[music: “Regret” by Fiona Apple]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the poet Marie Howe.
[music: “Regret” by Fiona Apple]
Ms. Tippett: Some people I know have called you a religious poet.
Ms. Howe: Oh, that’s funny.
Ms. Tippett: I think to label you a religious poet is to put you in a box. And that, in fact, the way religion or the soul comes into your poetry actually kind of takes it out of that box and puts it back into life.
Ms. Howe: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Right?
Ms. Howe: Yeah, I kind of feel — I don’t — well, “religious” isn’t the word I really relate to, organized religion, at all. I’m interested in the metaphysical.
Ms. Tippett: I mean, I think sometimes the reason people have called you a religious poet is because you do work with a lot of religious imagery and stories and characters.
Ms. Howe: Well, I’ve started writing in the voice of Mary Magdalene. That’s the most recent work. I actually want to leave you this latest poem, and it’s called, “Magdalene and the Seven Demons.” But she sounds like someone who lives now. I love Magdalene. And I think of her as someone who really struggled with her subjectivity too and came into it and found herself. I’m fascinated by her as a woman who has lived over centuries, why she had to be made into this person.
Ms. Tippett: A prostitute.
Ms. Howe: Right. And instead of a woman who was standing there and open and could see, and was interested and alive and relational.
Ms. Tippett: Well, do you want to read that? Can you?
Ms. Howe: It’s kind of long. I don’t know. Actually, the only thing written about Magdalene in the New Testament as far as I could see was in Luke. And it says, “Mary called Magdalene from whom seven devils had been cast out.” So this is Magdalene talking about those seven devils.
“The first was that I was very busy. / The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could / not happen to me, not like that. / The third — I worried. / The fourth — envy, disguised as compassion. / The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid, / The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. / The mosquito too — its face. And the ant — its bifurcated body. / OK the first was that I was so busy. / The second that I might make the wrong choice, / because I had decided to take that plane that day, / that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early / and, I shouldn’t have wanted that. / The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street / the house would blow up. / The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer / of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing. / The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living / The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, / and if I / touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right / then I had / to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would / be even. / The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that / was alive and I couldn’t stand it. / I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word — a cheesecloth — / to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside / everyone else that / entered me when I breathed in. / No. That was the first one. / The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this / happened? / How had our lives gotten like this? / The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it — distinct, / separate / from me in a bowl or on a plate. / OK. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list. / The second was that the laundry was never finally done. / The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they / did. / And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them / then what was / love? / The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself / to belong / to anyone. / The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we / didn’t know. / The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was / feeling. / The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying, / the sound she made — her mouth wrenched to the right / and cupped open / so as to take in as much air… the gurgling sound, so loud / we had to speak louder to hear each other over it. / And that I couldn’t stop hearing it — years later — grocery / shopping, crossing the street — / No, not the sound — it was her body’s hunger / finally evident — what our mother had hidden all her life. / For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots, / the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew / underneath. / The underneath — that was the first devil. It was always with me / And that I didn’t think you — if I told you — would understand any / of this —”
[music: “The Young Mariner” by Max Richter]
Ms. Tippett: It’s great. You’ve just written that?
Ms. Howe: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, it’s fabulous.
Ms. Howe: I’m glad you like it. I like her so much.
Ms. Tippett: I like it. I hear myself reflected, which is, of course, the point.
Ms. Howe: Yeah, me too. And that she’s — those are her devils, no different from ours. I love her because she’s us. All of those characters were us — are us.
Ms. Tippett: And you’re right. There’s something in that Mary Magdalene character and how she got embellished, and how it was read between the lines who she was, but that dilemma that we all have of never really being known.
Ms. Howe: No, I know.
Ms. Tippett: Right? That disconnect between who we think we are, and maybe who we really are, and who other people see us as, and the anguish of those disconnects.
Ms. Howe: Can we ever really be seen? I think the thing of Jesus — I mean, he must have been like this, and Buddha must have been, and all these great enlightened ones — he must have been able to really see people. And people didn’t feel ashamed in front of him and in relationship to him. They didn’t seem ashamed. And they’re constantly screwing up. I mean all those guys were constantly screwing up.
Ms. Tippett: That’s right. It’s true. Actually, I think they should have been a little bit more ashamed. [laughs]
Ms. Howe: I know, me too. [laughs] Seamus Heaney has that beautiful — I’m leaping a little bit. But Seamus has a beautiful — I want to say it’s a prose piece about when Jesus — when the woman is brought out to be stoned, and they say to Jesus, “So, this is the law. What do you think?” And he leans down, and he writes in the sand. Seamus said that’s poetry, whatever he was writing, and that in between, when he leans down and writes with his finger in the sand, and then looks up and says, “Whoever is without sin, you cast the first stone,” and everybody walks away.
And then he says, “Where did everybody go?” And she says, “They left.” And he said, “I don’t judge you either.” And that seems to settle it for me. I mean, he says, “Me either. I’m not without sin.” But if that were Mary, what a relief to look into someone’s face to say that.
Ms. Tippett: I want you to read some more poetry. I don’t know where I got this. I usually try to be careful with my notes. This is something you wrote or said maybe in another interview, that art helps us to let our heart break open, rather than close.
Ms. Howe: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: And I just wonder how you reflect on — because we’ve talked about your childhood, and families, and families of origin, and then going through life, and becoming a poet, and becoming a mother rather late in life. And how do you think the stakes of that art helping us let our heart break open, how the form and the stakes of that are different at different points — different at different points in your life and maybe in all of our lives?
Ms. Howe: Well, that’s one of the only choices that we have, right? I mean, things are going to happen all the time. The unendurable happens. People we love and we can’t live without are going to die. We’re going to die. One day we’re going to have to leave our children and die, leave the plants, and the bunnies, and the sunlight, and the rain and all that. I mean it’s unendurable. Art knows that. Art holds that knowledge. All art holds the knowledge that we’re both living and dying at the same time. It can hold it. And thank God it can because nothing out in the capitalistic corporate world is going to shine that back to us, but art holds it. And I think one of the only choices we have is — I remember when John died, I realized it’s small. I mean, people suffer.
People are suffering now an endurable suffering way beyond what I did. Right this minute, someone is in a prison being tortured for no reason. So I don’t know how I would live through that without going psychotic. But I did know that when John died, I thought, “OK, I can either just let this crack my heart open or closed.” And open, the good news about open is I turned around and there were of course the billion other people who live on this earth who have lost a person they love so much. And there they all were. And it was so great to be in their company.
And alternatively, the day I said to my daughter for the first and maybe only time when she was 4 years old — I remember where I was standing in Austin, Texas, making her bed. And she said, “Why do I have to do it?” And I said, “Because I said so.” And I turned around, and there they all were again. There were like millions of people going — [claps] “Yeah, we said it too.” And I’m like, “Hi, everybody. I just joined you.” And they were like, “Welcome.” I was so glad to be with them.
So I think that we join each other. It’s easier. We’re not alone. And I feel like that’s the only answer. Otherwise, we’d just think it’s only happening to us. And that’s a terrible and untrue way to live our lives. And I think art constantly mirrors that to us, whether you’re reading Thomas Hardy, or Doris Lessing, or Virginia Woolf, or Emily dinkinson, it’s just holding the human stories up to us, and we don’t feel alone. It’s so miraculous.
Emily dinkinson wrote those amazing poems. “I felt a Funeral in my Brain, / And Mourners, to and fro / Kept treading — treading — till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through.” And my students were all like, “Huh?” I’m like, “Who here has had a panic attack?” And like half the room raised their hand. I’m like, “OK, now read it.” “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down / And hit a World with every plunge/ And finished knowing — then.” And they’re all like, “Whoa.” I’m like, “OK, imagine acute anxiety.” She wrote it. She domesticated it for us. She found the language for it. So when it happens to us, we’re not alone. It’s shared, and everything shared is better.
Ms. Tippett: What would you like to read? There’s this line from — The Good Thief was what I started with, and so I had all the — I just really fell in love with it. And I know those are — I think those are older for you. “Sorrow, so now it has our complete attention and we are made whole.” Just that line was fabulous. That’s absolutely tweetable.
Ms. Howe: [laughs] Tweetable.
Ms. Tippett: And I will tweet it later today.
Ms. Howe: Well, it’s that same idea, that finally we’re stopped long enough to feel ourselves alive. Well, there’s a series in here that’s in the voice of Mary, Mother of Jesus. So these are all 14-line poems where Mary was talking. And I wrote about four of them, and I went to show them to Stanley Kunitz, who was my friend for many years. And he said, “Now you must write about the Annunciation.” I said, “Yeah, sure. OK, I’ll try.” And I wrote many poems that I threw away — maybe not many, but three or four. And then this poem came through, and it had nothing to do with me. So I’d like to read it. And it’s her talking about that visit.
Ms. Howe: “Annunciation.”
“Even if I don’t see it again — nor ever feel it / I know it is — and that if once it hailed me / it ever does — / And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction / not as towards a place, but it was a tilting / within myself, / as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where / it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam / in what shone at me / only able to endure it by being no one and so / specifically myself I thought I’d die / from being loved like that.”
[music: “Scene of the Sunrise” by Miaou]
Ms. Tippett: Marie Howe has just published a new book, Magdalene, around the poem she first read aloud for us in this show. She teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and is the former poet laureate of New York. Her previous poetry collections include What the Living Do, The Good Thief, and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.
And since this interview, Marie Howe not only met the sidewalk artist she told us about here, known as The Mazeking; she’s also collaborated with him. They created the Street Poems Project, placing lines of poetry on sidewalks and streets throughout New York City. She’s also partnered with the MTA Arts and Design and the Poetry Society of America on an immersive public installation called “The Poet Is In,” where poets set up desks at Grand Central station and craft poems for visitors. Marie Howe hopes to take this project across the country.
[music: “Home (Noriyuki Inoue Remix)” by jizue]
Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, and Rigsar Wangchuck.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Mark Conway and to the College of St. Benedict’s Literary Arts Institute, as well as the hermitage, at St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Additional thanks to W.W. Norton & Company for permission to use some of Marie Howe’s poetry.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.