As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Marie Howe in response to a video of her reading her poem “Singularity” aloud. Marie Howe wrote letters back to four of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Marie Howe also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear Each of you,
Thank you for your letters. I wish we were all together in a big tent right now, and that we might talk about poetry and drink apple cider and wonder about the world out loud.
Like many of you I’ve often wondered about reality – how did we come to be here? Who are we? Where are we going? What is the universe? Does it have an edge? An end? Who are the other animals? Do the trees talk with one another? What is the nature of time? Why are humans so kind and so destructive?
So I started to read scientists: Books by Neil deGrasse Tyson “ Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” And Stephen Hawking “ A Brief History of Time”. And others.
And learned that before what scientists call The Big Bang was what they call The Singularity – a very very dense tiny matter that exploded into Everything That Is.
And when it exploded space occurred and with space time happened, and galaxies and planets and etc etc etc..) so we are made-- all of us -- ( elephants, microbes, volleyballs, trees, ) out of the same atoms as that original tiny matter. As Walt Whitman wrote “ Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”. And it was a relief to remember that.
We belong to the living world, we are surrounded by kin. More and more, especially in this pandemic time and political time I turn to the living world around me – it is sane, and it teaches me to live in the present, to change, to grow.
If we look around us we might find poetry everywhere.
Wishing you every bright wish.
Marie Howe reads "Singularity" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Ms. Howe:
Your poem, “Singularity,” strikes me because of its notion that everything on our planet started from one place. My whole life, I have been moved around the world due to my dad’s profession. Your poem stirs my thoughts about how interconnected my global experiences are and how our so-called global differences are actually tied together by a universal being. What was your personal inspiration for writing such a deep piece? As a Hindu, I find this poem similar to the concept that all things on Earth are part of the universal Brahman. I also notice your emphasis on the material things we choose to concentrate on, whether that be “a bed, or food or money” and how these terms are just ideas that we have produced and chosen to associate with well-being. These ideas become insignificant compared to the “singularity” that binds everything together.
One of my favorite lines of your poem is, “For every atom belonging to me as good / belongs to you. Remember?”. This question is to me a call-to-action. We are all interwoven, so why not help one another? All of us struggle with finding inner peace in our disjointed lives, leading us to find unsuccessful temporary fixes. This message reminds me that we are all made up of the same matter and are in this together. As you wrote, “Trashed / oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French.” Your alliteration and listing make these languages distinct but also link them together. Your enjambment of trashed also points out the damage we have collectively done to the environment, in spite of our distinguished languages. I am distinctly an Indian American, yet I still face judgment today from others. But if we’re all made of the same atoms, should we not live as one?
I am also moved by your ideas about the shallow society that humans have created. The lines, “before we came to believe humans were so important / before this awful loneliness,” speak to me not only as a human, but as a single inhabitant of a planet that we as a society do not own. In your constant reminders of our past, I find myself posing further questions of our human integrity. What made us forget that “we were ocean” at one point? What do you believe we owe to this planet that we’ve taken as ours? And how do we lift this “awful loneliness” that we have created for ourselves? Your powerful words illustrate the negativity of our situation and our consequential desperation to escape.
In thinking deeply about the meaning of this poem, I find the answers to my questions already written out in your final lines. The only way to achieve peace and solace is to erase, to boil down our complexities to:
No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb no noun
Only a tiny tiny dot brimming with
is is is is is
All everything home
The lines transport me out of our world of differences with a repeated rejection of no, through the italic tunnel of being in is, and to a final destination of home. Was this your purpose? Is this how we will solve our issues that we have created for generations to come? With simply being? Only the universe existing? I hope for the future but I have doubt in the human race. We lack attention.
Your letter is a poem -- so thoughtful, imaginative, and carefully worded.
The line you love was written by the poet Walt Whitman -- : For every atom Belonging to me as good belongs to you.” from Leaves of Grass, and the poem Song of Myself. Whitman saw into reality and wrote about it so the rest of us might glimpse it. And yes, your Hindu culture grasped this long before Whitman was alive.
But it’s fascinating that scientists now believe that everything that now is actually was compressed into a very very dense tiny object they call The Singularity.
And that with the Big Bang everything exploded into space, creating space and time as it did.
I’m moved by your last line about humans. We lack attention. Oh yes, that line breaks my heart. And it gives me hope. Because we can change and we can turn our attention to the rest of the living world and fall in love with it : birds, lions, mosquitoes, geysers, mountains, trees, frogs, microbes, all. And by doing so perhaps we can stop others from destroying it.
This is what poetry can do -- bring us to our senses.
And what your letter has done, is doing for me.
Thank you for every word. I hope we meet one day,
With every bright wish,
I Notice that she talks about when we were all one being, everything.
I wonder, did this ever happen?
I wonder if she is talking about the big bang.
I wonder if she is talking about the community we lived in as cavemen.
I notice that I’m starting to feel left out now.
This reminds me of my first time playing dodge ball, which was in Korea, when I felt left out because I had no idea what was happening, and whenever they tried to explain, I couldn’t understand...because they spoke Korean
I wonder if she wishes she were there.
Of with this Idea, this is about back when the big bang occurred.
Maybe this is before the big bang.
I wonder if this is about the equivalent of earth that existed before the big bang. Didn’t the order go:
Galaxy got wrecked
New Galaxy (Us right now)
This reminds me of that ted ed video on how the universe could end
Ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh What is the poem about!!!
Maybe it’s god!
This must be god!
When everything was is!
Every soul is god
Every ocean, land, human, crop, is star is in the heart of god!
I notice that I’m wrong.
Difficulty level: 7.8 million/10
I Notice that she said no them, just is
Maybe it is that we should be grateful that there just is the earth
I wonder if that one speck is earth.
Maybe the moral is to be us, not them, not him, or her, don’t be sad that other people have what you don’t have, just be glad that there is.
This reminds me of the lava and moon poem, IDK, just the earth reminds me of the moon.
I notice that this is changing my view about everything. The earth is one speck flooded with people, but...
Our mind? Our dream? Is that it?
#List of what it could be:
The “Maybe it is that we should be grateful that there just is the earth” idea God.
Your letter – not letter – your meditation – is a poem.
Reading it made me feel alive! And happy! And you understood
You understood what the poem was trying to hold inside itself.
(Every poem holds the unsayable).
Yes, I had been reading books about physics and the formation of the universe, books by Neil deGrasse Tyson. “ Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”
And Stephen Hawking “ A Brief History of Time”. And learned that before what scientists call The Big Bang was what they call the singularity – a very very dense tiny matter that exploded into everything that is. (and when it exploded space occurred and with space time happened and galaxies and planets and etc etc etc..) so we are made all of us (elephants, microbes, volleyballs, trees,) out of the same atoms as that original tiny matter. Everything is everything and that might be ---- God?
Now a bird is calling from a tree outside. But I don’t hear another bird answer.
You are the bird that answers.
I hope you write all the time. We need your voice in this world.
Your letter has illuminated the day.
With every bright wish,
Dear Ms. Marie Howe,
My name is Alex, and I’m a freshman in high school. I read your poem, “Singularity”. The longing for simplicity that you described spoke to me. Our world is so crammed with information, people, objects, animals, plants, and everything imaginable. We rarely, if ever, truly see the beauty in it. Maybe our news, our social media, our worries, our insecurities, maybe, it’s all just a vice to put off the pressure of living in our beautiful world. Your poem made me rethink the beauty of the Earth, our grand mass of atoms and empty space. The sunsets, the butterflies, the green grass, the cold, wet snow, it’s all just atoms and empty space.
In your poem, you talk about how blissful it would be to live in a singularity. I can’t imagine what a singularity would be, everything so close together. Every single atom in the entire universe, with no space. But isn’t space what makes things magical? Space makes me human. How come I am not the inchworm crawling across an orange blossom, inhaling its sweet scent through tiny nostrils that I’m not entirely sure exist. How is it that I’m a human instead of a giant squid roaming the dark depths of the ocean? How is it that my atoms turned out to be human instead of the beetle scurrying through my dark garage in summer, hoping with every ounce of its body that it won’t get stepped on? How is it that I didn't turn out to be a seahorse choking to death from plastic? How is it that I didn't turn out to be the last white rhino, destined to die with none of my kind, living out the epitome of loneliness? Maybe, a singularity is bliss. No death, no suffering, no sadness, no anger. Maybe, if all of those atoms were smashed together, something magical would happen, and everything would be okay again.
Everything would be okay. But not beautiful, not joyful, not happy, not colorful. There would be no nights spent baking and laughing until you collapse on the kitchen floor with your best friend. There would be no nights spent outside a cabin in upstate New York on the lakeshore looking up at millions of stars. There would be no sunset bike rides, no butterflies in your stomach, no favorite TV shows, no Christmas mornings, no night drives with the windows open blasting your music out to the world, and no love.
You may be thinking that this letter is full of contradictions. And it is. But then again, so is the world. Earth is messy, a mass of atoms sloppily splashed in between space. Our lives are constantly a game of chance. Maybe someone else rolls the dice. Or maybe it's just us. Us, left to deal with the bad decisions, the mistakes. A singularity would solve all of our problems. It would also destroy the problems, the solutions, the befores, the afters, the beginnings, and the endings.
I hope you read my letter and know that your poem made me rethink my life. And now, the sky outside my window is dark, there’s cicadas clustering outside my window, drawn in by my desk light, and I can no longer see the silhouette of the oak tree that has stood in my front yard all my life. My fingers are weary of this keyboard, and sitting at this desk alone has made me stiff. I should probably get to sleep now, and dream of all of our atoms melding together into one singularity. Or, as you gracefully put it, “All everything home”
I can’t thank you enough for your writing,
San Antonio, TX
Look at these beautiful lines you wrote:
And now the sky outside my window is dark,
there’s cicadas clustering outside my window,
drawn in by my desk light, and I can no longer see
the silhouette of the oak tree that has stood in my front yard all my life.
That’s a poem in itself. Thank you for your letter. I feel as you do, I love all the details and complexity of the world. And I agree we are overwhelmed by information but most of that information is generated by humans. Your last lines hold another kind of information: the dark, the song of the cicadas, the oak. I wish for more of that kind and less human chatter.
But The Singularity is not simplicity --it is a real thing – It’s what the scientists call the original very very dense matter that exploded in what they call The Big Bang. And when it exploded it expanded into space and time and everything that is – mosquitoes, mountains, people, trees,
Everything. The poem wants to recall that every molecule that is was once held in that singularity.
So that we really are each other, and we really are ocean and plants and well that’s why I quote Walt Whitman. “ Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” We speak of “ Nature” as if we are not also nature. It’s that loneliness that hurts us. In your lines above. You are surrounded by kin – the sky, the cicadas, the oak tree—you are fortunate to be aware of these presences.
And Alex – I was happy to actually see you and to hear you read your letter.
Thank you for every word
With every warm wish,
Dear Marie Howe,
My name is Grace and I am a current junior at New Rochelle High School.
I must admit, poetry was never my favorite topic in English class because I could never relate or really understand the meaning of the poem without help. However, your poem spoke to me deeply and I wanted to thank you for opening up my eyes to new things. Upon hearing your poem, what immediately drew my attention was your mention of current events like the serious issues of school shootings and drugs which never even existed before our time on this Earth. This made me think of a conversation I had with my dad one morning before school. We were both eating our breakfast and talking as the television reporter started talking about the horrific details of the school shooting that had happened the day before. My dad says to me that life was so much easier back when he was a kid. He told me that after school he could go anywhere without his parents worrying as long as he was home for dinner in time. He had no idea what school shootings even were back when he was a kid. I began to think then, why is the world the way it is now? Why do parents have to worry about sending their kids to school when it should be a safe place to learn? Why do kids need to be in fear that one of their friends could take their life or that there can be an attack on their school at any time? Why was life so much simpler back then? These were just some of my thoughts as you mentioned those prevalent events in your poem.
Your poem reminded me of how far our world has advanced in ways that we have the capability to test “if the elephant grieves her calf of if the coral reef feels pain”. Our oceans which were once clean and pure are now filled with trash. Positively speaking, these issues are what bring together our communities to find solutions and awareness. I think your poem perfectly captures how far our world has come from nothingness, to the advanced society we live in today. Often we wrestle with questions of meaning, togetherness, purpose and identity but the poem creates a deeper perspective of these questions. I really admire how this poem brings together poetry and science which are two things I do not usually see together.
I was wondering how you chose the name of this poem? Did the work of Stephen Hawking inspire you personally? I think your poem is very inspiring and I like to think of it in a way that is not looking at the negatives of society but how communities have to come together and stand united throughout the changing times.
New Rochelle, NY
Thank you for your kind letter.
You know I was reading books about new visions of our world and how it happened. ( It’s so easy to forget that we are on a planet spinning in space !) because I teach eco-poetry - that is poetry concerned with the interconnectedness of the living world.
And I read the scientist Stephen Hawking and others who now believe that everything that is - everything -- the universe was once compacted into a tiny tiny tiny super dense matter ( smaller than a fingernail ) that exploded with what they call The Big Bang into what we now call the Universe.
The scientists see that everything is moving apart -- stars, planets, galaxies, -- and that if everything is moving apart it once was together.
It’s almost impossible for me to grasp. But I love the idea that what we think of as Separate Things -- are the same stuff as what we think of as US. And that we are not apart from the living world -- but within the fabric of it - as are mountains, microbes, insects, geysers, mosquitoes, etc… When we hurt the living world, we hurt ourselves.
Our loneliness comes from so long believing that we are most important. Poetry can wonder into these things. -- this is the poetry I love -- that wonders -- often without knowing answers. To wonder. That is poetry’s work.
Or some of it. Thank you Grace -- for having this conversation with me -- I hope one day to meet in person.
Sending every bright wish,
Dear Marie Howe,
There’s something singularly entrancing about space. Something hidden between each distant pinprick that keeps us--or me, at least--looking up. And when not preoccupied with craning my neck to the stars, I’m often buried up to my chest in sci-fi literature.
So when, combing through the contest materials for this year, I discovered a poem dedicated to the late Steven Hawking, my choice came rather easily.
I must say, though, that reading the poem the first time through confused me. Space has always been an expanse of possibility to me, a wide-open plain for the mind to wander as aimlessly as the frontiers of old. We know nothing of it, and in that it frees us. But this was different from the outlandish, space-opera fare I’ve fallen for time and time again. Where were the aliens, the lightspeed drives, the photon rays, the under-explained origin of each?
I had to read it aloud a few times before I realized something. Speculation didn’t have to go outward. Escapism didn’t exclusively reside in the galaxy a few doors down. The desire to uncover an entirely new world is not just bred of curiosity, but of a yearning to pare away the painful parts of this entirely old one.
Your piece captured that urge from an angle I hadn’t considered much before. Instead of flinging forwards in time, what if we could go back? Return to that point of impossibility and all possibility, and never return to now? In a time so fraught as the one we know today, the offer is admittedly enticing.
And that’s not even discussing how that message is conveyed. As a whole, the poem has-- preemptively pardon the pun--a certain gravity to it that, especially when verbalized, pulls you line by line to those final fragments. The last two lines of the poem emulate the namesake gorgeously: still the same piece, but broken down from the coherence of the first line to something raw; almost violently it. Being someone with a heavy leaning towards prose, the closing line has more of an impact than I’d ever thought three words had any right to be.
As you can likely see, I enjoy pushing perhaps a bit too close to the edge of run-on sentences. If there were opportunity for florid description and pitched starship battle in this letter, no doubt I would’ve indulged myself. You cut through that. I’m at a loss to say exactly how, but your style broke the mold of my preference and practically urged me to enjoy it. So thank you, for making poetry not only accessible, but beautiful to a space-junkie like me.
But just because I’m fairly new to the world of poetry doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it. What’s kept me distanced from it is chiefly my chronic penchant for long-windedness. Are there any forms conducive to such a style? Any authors who’ve built themselves on a similar tendency? It seems like something I’m not going to shake any time soon, but there may be some poet who’s turned my affliction into an asset.
I’ve grown up in a time when many of the landmark achievements beyond the stratosphere have been relegated to the realm of theory. I’d be interested in learning about how you grew up watching the practicalities of it. Watching liftoff from the living room, the moon landing, the Hubble, the Pale Blue Dot: what was it that first pulled you into the vacuum?
In a time when the world has seemingly begun to collapse in on itself, your words ring true to someone feeling the proverbial walls closing in. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad a thing, to remember where it is we all came from, and where we’ll likely end up.
With warm regards,
Dear Ms. Marie Howe,
My name is Olivia and I am a freshman at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York. I have a passion for poetry and I find that when I read and write poetry it feels almost exactly the same as the free expression and liberation of self that comes with displaying an art form, like dance or music. I am always struck with awe at the fact that poems are multidimensional. They have a first impression, and then many underlying thoughts just waiting to be uncovered. The whole poem is so much more than the first read through. But when I read your poem, “Singularity”, for the first time, I was attached. Your words grabbed me hook, line, and sinker. It was probably one of the first times that I felt uplifted during the pandemic. Your poem talks about being singular, alone, yet feeling so whole inside. I read your poem when I was alone in my home, no companionship, when I felt anything but whole inside.
The first line of your poem says, “Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” This line is a question we all ask ourselves, it is a universal experience of wanting to go back to simpler times. I want to go back to the time when I joked around with my friends at lunch and made them smile, yet now the only time I even hear a fragment of their voices is when they echo across the empty void of cyberspace. In your poem you talk about how togetherness provides love and support. How can we feel loved and supported if the only time we interact is during our once-a-week video chat, hiding our pixelated expressions behind our lonesome screens? In your poem, you talk a lot about how being connected is more nurturing than being alone. I believe that humanity has just become one massive mechanism, cold and calculating. Humans have not become immune to emotion, but rather numb to it by now, with all of the hate and the lies and the reckless behavior on social platforms of adults and youth alike. We have become seemingly connected, but actually our sources of technological connection have become a great hindrance to the way humans connect socially. When humanity connects, we are supposed to feel emotion. Emotion makes us human and the only way to claim our individuality back is to recognize what human connection is. Everything used to flow together in harmony as one, when “we were ocean and before that to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space,” as stated in your poem. When you read your poem aloud, a peaceful silence settled within me. Your poem is almost mourning what once was, but when I heard you say your poem, I felt like I wanted to smile and cry at the same time. The way you conveyed how humans talk with nature and how we interact with each other was not only true, your poem was one of the most relevant texts that I have heard for a long time. Global Warming is an issue all around the world and so is the bleaching of our oceans and the poaching of our species for their valuable resources. I believe that humanity has not been aware of our impacts on our environments and how we access our valuables and augment the world for ourselves in selfish ways. In your poem, it talks about waking up to what we were. Waking up is not just the act of rousing oneself from sleep but the act of clearing our blurry, groggy minds and perceiving the world with an open one. Your poem exalts these virtues, saying that when we were together and awake, we would connect with each other and the world in the most pure, human way. Your poem states, “No I, no we, no one, no was, no verb, no noun,” bringing clarity to the fact that all of what makes us different and separates us into our own different categories are our own human constructs. I wish humankind would find the possibility in our species, and the hope in the “tiny tiny dot brimming with is is is is is”. We could understand how similar we really are to each other and instead of accentuating our differences, we could realize that being a united whole means recognizing the one thing we have in common during the most joyous or darkest of times: our humanity.
I would like to say that the meaningful way you aligned this poem with the universe, the future, and life itself was not lost on me. Apart from being alone or singular, the word singularity also is an infinitely dense point of matter in space time, also known as the center of a black hole. In the singularity of a black hole, all matter is vacuumed towards the event horizon. It is the most powerful part of the black hole, practically ground zero, a central point where all matter that comes too close to the black hole revolves around. Your poem references humanity as a black hole, that many things revolve around the human race, such as the state of the world right now and the negative consequences of human selfishness. Yet, many positive occasions are reflected by humanity as well, for instance when humans started global conservation efforts to preserve the world or how humans figured out how to reach beyond the sky to the heavens. Singularities are fascinating and very volatile when swallowing up whole solar systems, just like how the human race can disrupt many different natural occurrences, for better or for worse. But, like it or not, I have come to accept that change is a natural occurrence. Another way the word “singularity” can be interpreted is not necessarily the singularity before this turmoil, but also immediately after. Just how human interaction can change based on the advancement of technology, one theory states that there could possibly be a technological singularity in the future, detailing the time in which technological advances could lead to an unforeseeable future in which technology becomes uncontrollably inherent in our future society. Were you intending this kind of interpretation when you wrote the poem? Are you concerned at all about our possible future if readers do not heed your wise words or at least listen and try to understand?
As a final reference to my personal experiences, my childhood was filled with a fascination for the unknown and the complexities of humanity on the whole. I was greatly influenced by astrophysicists and astronomers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and especially Stephen Hawking and his remarkable findings about black holes. Their words and teachings impacted the person I am today. Your poem brought back to mind the many questions I thought about as a child and still think about as a teenager. Thank you in this time of confusion, misunderstanding, and loneliness for your wise and thoughtful words on humanity. I will read this poem from time to time, or every time I feel lonely, to reflect on my place in the world and my passion to question, believe, connect, feel emotion, understand, and seek joy.
New York, NY