Magdalene, by Marie Howe [poetry]


Magdalene: Poems - Marie Howe

I began reading Marie Howe when I was an undergrad taking my first poetry workshops. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked her style, which is deceptively simple or plain. This was a contrast to many other poets I was introduced to at the same time, such as Mark Doty and Yusef Komunyakaa. But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with her aesthetic, and that first book of hers I read, What the Living Do, remains a favorite and a touchstone.

I now recognize and admire the delicate straightforwardness of Howe’s language, which packs as much power as any formal poem or one with more verbal jujitsu. Her lines can be long, with lots of room between them or stanzas. They feel quiet, contemplative, so when there’s a turn or revelation coming, it heightens the impact. I’m trying to explain her appeal, but part of it is that I can’t. Or I could if I analyzed it to death, and I prefer letting the magic linger.

The poems’ subjects range from desire to mental health, self-perception, spirituality, and motherhood. Though I don’t read the book like one overarching narrative, it does feel like there’s an arc; there’s a fullness to that arc that somehow replicates the sensation of completing a big, fat novel. You have an idea of a life.

Here’s a favorite:

“How the Story Started”

I was driven toward desire by desire.

believing that the fulfillment of that desire was an end.

There was no end.


Others might have looked into the future and seen

a shape inside the coming years —

a house, a child, a man who might be a help.


I saw his back bent over what he was working on,

the back of his neck, how he stood in his sneakers,

and wanted to eat him.


How could I see another person, I mean who he was–apart from me–

apart from that?


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Magdalene, by Marie Howe [poetry]

Why I Love Poetry

I was disheartened but not surprised poetry was left out of the “Why I Love” featured posts in February. Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has a comparatively small readership, at least in America. As a poet, it sometimes seems that only fellow poets read poetry, which is a shame.

Before I explain why I love poetry, here are some reasons why it appears readers avoid it (feel free to skip!):

1. Poetry tends not to be taught in school as consistently as prose, at least in the U.S. When it is, it’s often works that are at least 50 years old, if not centuries. I went to a good public school, and in addition to Shakespeare’s sonnets, we may occasionally have read the likes of Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Emily Dickinson. Fine poets, but not contemporary and not representative enough. As a result, students think all poetry must rhyme or be in form and sounds antiquated.

2. Poetry has a reputation for being “difficult.” This is related to the reason above in that students erroneously learn to see poems as puzzles to be solved. Poems are not math problems (one more reason I love them). There is no mystical key you must stumble upon to “unlock” a poem. Poems are like living beings when encountered in that space between the words on the page (or in the air if heard) and what happens in your mind and body. When poems are approached as if they are puzzles, it’s like treating them as dead things, or like Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s poem, when he is “fix[ed]…in a formulated phrase…sprawling on a pin…pinned and wriggling on the wall.” If a reader is fixated on “solving” it, he/she will miss the poem’s beauty.

3. We’re living in a time when the arts and humanities are undervalued. In the U.S., funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been gutted in Trump’s budget proposal, even though it’s a minuscule slice of the federal pie. Even in Obama’s presidency, the emphasis was on training and education for the science and technology fields. I have a PhD in English and still have been unable to find a full-time teaching position as the recession hit a few years before I graduated. As universities’ budgets are cut, so are the literary journals they help fund. Essentially, there are fewer places to publish and read poetry.

So here’s WHY I LOVE POETRY, and you should too!

1. Every line of a poem (or sentence/phrase in a prose poem) can be a surprise, can change everything, including the reader. Prose forms and drama build tension and suspense through plot; poetry doesn’t need that. That combination of surprise and recognition that happens when you read a good poem is like having an epiphany over and over with each line, with no dilution of its revelation, or like hearing a favorite comedian deliver a punchline. My favorite example of a poem that embodies this sort of surprise is Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

2. Sound and language for their own sake. Even if you have no idea what a poem is “about,” you can enjoy the way it plays with language and sound. This is why nonsense poems like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” are still a delight. Also a reminder that poems are meant to be heard.

3. Diversity: of form, source (writer, culture, time), purpose. Every culture with which I am familiar has its own poetry (or poetries). Before prose, there was poetry. Before we wrote anything down, there was poetry. So whatever you’re in the mood for, there’s a poem for it, whether it’s something political, personal, social; narrative or lyric; formal or free; angry, joyful, sad, funny.

Here’s my favorite site to browse poems: You can browse by occasion, poet, movement, time period, place, etc.

Here are some contemporary poet recs. (Also feel free to browse my poetry tag(s).)

Anne Carson

Billy Collins

Mark Doty

Rita Dove

Daisy Fried

Louise Gluck

Matthea Harvey

Robert Hass

Seamus Heaney

Zbigniew Herbert

Juan Felipe Herrera

Marie Howe

Ko Un

Yusef Komunyakaa

Jamaal May

Harryette Mullen

Adrienne Rich

Tomas Transtromer

David Wojahn

Adam Zagajewski


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Why I Love Poetry

"Smugmush in the Art Bar," by Mark Halliday

A hilarious takedown of a certain kind of poem published in a certain kind of literary venue. (Also a great exercise in tone.) This made me feel better about the fact that any given poet friend of mine writes more interesting stuff than what typically gets published in Big Name Magazines via “connections.”

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"Smugmush in the Art Bar," by Mark Halliday

Breakfast with Dante’s Inferno

The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation - Robert Pinsky, Dante Alighieri


I’ve attempted to read Dante’s Inferno at least twice before, years ago. I stopped not because I wasn’t interested but because I felt intimidated. Robert Pinsky’s translation has made all the difference; this was not a painful read at all–excluding the horrific and grotesque depictions of hell themselves. Pinsky’s translation was all the rage when it came out and through my years as an undergrad (at least in poetry circles), and I can see why. It’s lucid and captures something of the original terza rima in English: no easy feat.

I’m also smarter about how to read works with copious notes. I simply read a canto THEN flipped to the back and read the notes. The cantos are short enough where this makes sense, and I could understand the narrative for that period.

As for Dante’s work, it’s still awe-inspiring as a literary accomplishment and as a text that is inextricably a part of culture. It’s essential reading for poets and writers, or artists, period–the journey through hell is a common theme of artistic maturity in part because of Dante. It’s a portrait of mentorship, not just of hell. As a narrative it’s also compelling for its use of point of view–Dante the poet writing about his journey after the fact and Dante as pilgrim traveling hell with his guide, Virgil.

Much of the imagery in the Inferno is still shocking, though in a few places it’s also darkly comic. I read a canto each morning as I ate breakfast, which was not always the best idea! The tortures Dante invents are graphically depicted so that, like Dante, you can’t help but pity the sinners at times. Some figures come from history and mythology, while others, though real people, are not known unless one is familiar with Italian history specifically–naturally, the shades Dante wishes to talk to are those he knew or knew of.

As an atheist, I could only connect so much with the story, or only in the way I might when reading fantasy. The human elements are what matter to me, not the baffling construct of hell (baffling in which sins are considered worse than others and why) or the condemnation of those who simply happened to live before Christ, were not baptized, were homosexual, or were “heretics” (i.e. anyone not Christian) or “usurers” (typically code for Jewish).

What would the nine circles be and who would be in them if Dante were writing today?

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Breakfast with Dante’s Inferno

Faithful and Virtuous Night, by Louise Gluck


Faithful and Virtuous Night: Poems - Louise Glück

I have read and enjoyed Gluck before–my favorite book of hers is The Wild Iris–but as I’ve mentioned in previous poetry reviews, my tastes can change, or I can become antsy if it feels like a poet is treading familiar ground stylistically. This collection won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2014, so I began it hopefully.


The book of Gluck’s I was most immediately reminded of was A Village Life, my least favorite for its strangely nostalgic pastoralism whose tone I’m not sure I ever grasped. It’s hard to pinpoint what similarities I’m feeling; I can only say that Faithful and Virtuous Night was a decidedly better experience for me as a reader. Nature, spirituality, family–these are recurring themes in Gluck’s work. Here there’s also much to do with creativity, and the creative person’s life, especially as that life nears its end. The poems are often tender, but never maudlin; there are moments of great beauty, lines that stunned me right where I long for all poems to do.


The poems are lucid and narrative, and together it appears a larger story is being told, with possibly recurring personae (another book that popped into my head while reading: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). There are also fable-like stories or mythologies throughout; together with the mentions of writing and (personal) history, the act of narrative or storytelling makes another significant theme.


Familiar themes like losing time and aging can be hard to make new for a reader; on one side there’s sentimentality, on the other, despair or cynicism. Gluck treads a careful path between the two, not exactly pining, not exactly comforting, but the poems’ beauty is its own comfort. I admire her, too, for writing narratively and clearly in a way that’s never boring or limp (I’ve come to value the lyric over the narrative; I would call these highly lyric narratives).


If you’re less familiar with poetry, Gluck is another great poet to begin with. If you’re in a contemplative space (mentally or physically), this would be a lovely companion.

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Faithful and Virtuous Night, by Louise Gluck

South Korea’s Ko Un, This Side of Time


This Side of Time: Poems by Ko Un - Ko  Un, Claire Young, Richard Silberg

Ko Un is another poet I found while browsing Many of us (Westerners) have come across Japanese or Chinese poetry, but rarely Korean poetry. That’s a shame. The Korean Wave has brought us Korean popular culture–K-pop and drama–and I hope the country’s literature rides that wave.


Ko Un is a big deal in South Korea, and translations of some of his many works (over 100 volumes of poetry) have brought him to a larger context. I subscribe to the Dodge Poetry Festival on YouTube, and noticed they have videos of him reading (in Korean, with a translator). He’s been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s also one of those poets who’s led quite a life: soldier, zen monk, teacher, political prisoner, and political activist.


This Side of Time, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg, presents poems from three collections. The poems are mostly short, many with the sort of surprise turn at the end that delights or moves. In a way, it’s like reading the best parts of longer poems: that shift at the close that brings the whole poem into focus and makes you revisit it. I’m a longtime fan of concision, too, of the highly lyric moment, and these poems are great examples of that. They’re often witty, earthy, sometimes sad but not depressing. They offer a deep caring about the world.


An example:


Regular Guy


We trust there is sun

when it’s covered by clouds.

We believe in the world

even though we all die.

We believe in this world of trees and grass.


This is a collection you’d be able to enjoy no matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with poetry.


I copied down a couple poems from the book and put them on my brother and sister-in-law’s refrigerator when I visited recently; they hadn’t yet noticed them before I left. I hope when they did, the poems changed a moment of their day.

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South Korea’s Ko Un, This Side of Time