Reading Matters

Marie Howe’s poem leaves volumes unsaid

A mere four-line poem, “Fourteen,” by Marie Howe in the June 20 issue of The New Yorker, will make your knees go weak. The poet is talking about a daughter. She says, “She is still mine – for another year or so – / but she’s already looking past me / through the funeral-home door / to where the boys have gathered in their dark suits.”

On one level, of course, the poem’s about the fleeting nature of childhood. But those boys? Are they ushers, pall bearers? More likely, Howe means all those boys suited up in their coffins, dead too soon – from wars, suicide, murder, AIDs, car wrecks. The beauty of poetry is the enormity of what’s left unsaid.

Howe’s first collection, The Good Thief (1988), was chosen for the National Poetry Series. In 1989, Howe’s brother John died of an AIDS-related illness. As Howe states in an interview, “John’s living and dying changed my aesthetic completely.” What the Living Do (1997) is an elegy to John and was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the five best poetry collections of the year. Her third collection, In The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, came out in 2008.

Howe has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, and has received fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She was the Poet Laureate of New York State from 2012 to 2014.