The Poetry of Marie Howe: Where the Wall Gives Way

Marie Howe
© Brad Fowler
COURTESY OF Blue Flower Arts

MARIE HOWE is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W.W. Norton, 2008); The Good Thief (Persea Books, 1988); and What the Living Do (W.W. Norton, 1999), and is the co-editor of a book of essays, In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (Persea Books, 1995). Stanley Kunitz selected Howe for a Lavan Younger Poets Prize from the American Academy of Poets. She has 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. Read more at

Artistic expression, for many, is based on experience and understanding, with originality arising, for the most part, from the writer’s particular vision and imagination. What is imagination for you? How much of it transcends and how far does it govern the working process?

I don’t know how to think about imagination apart from consciousness. What do we mean when we say someone is “imaginative?” My daughter is – she makes things up, she pretends in great detail and creates a world that never actually “happens” in time and space as we know it. That seems to be the realm of what we call “ fiction” writers and it’s a world I can’t imagine for myself. In my daughter’s un-pretend world she delights in wondering how or why and what if — that’s imagination too, of course. And that’s more the kind of imagination that might come into my poems. Consciousness seems to be the word I’d favor — which is made up of so many aspects: memory, desire, stored knowledge, wonderings, image-making — and all the connections that occur in the act of writing. But all of this that we are trying to talk about is fluid, ephemeral — ever passing and changing — clouds crossing an October sky. The miracle of writing is that in doing it something can occur that hasn’t happened yet. But I don’t know how to talk about what that is in words.

You have said that you are interested in the metaphysical. How do you define the metaphysical?

I am interested in the experienced world — the world of clinking cutlery and the barking dog, and what people say when walking along the sidewalk – the physical world we’d call it but I don’t see that world as separate from the metaphysical.

Metaphysical refers to what might be beyond that which we can discern with our senses.

But even the world beyond isn’t quite right, is it?

What did Blake say? “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of the Soul discern’d by the five senses, the chief inlet of Soul in this age.” Sometimes it seems that the physical world is — the partial expression — of whatever else that is that we can’t discern. A ruffle, a spine breaking the surface, a wave. Because we have only five senses we can only see some of it — but we are it as well. And so there’s no division.

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