As part of the 2022 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 “The Gate” aloud. Marie Howe wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Marie Howe also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear each of you,
I’m deeply moved by your beautiful letters in response to “The Gate”. loved hearing your thoughts and feelings and associations. Many of you mentioned loved ones who had died. Some of you mentioned close friends you had lost in other ways. And what struck me over and over was that love does not ever die. We do. But love does not.
Poetry knows that we are mortal: we are living and dying at the same time. If everything lived forever perhaps, we wouldn’t need to write things down so they might live, in some sense, again. And poetry has breath in it. We breathe with every line. And if we read the poem as it is written on the page, we can say it as the poet did—the starts and brief stops at the end of the line, the breath and voice of the poet within us.
Some of you wondered about the source of the poem. My brother John and I were close: we spoke almost daily. When he died, I didn’t know how I would go on without my dear companion. The poet Stanley Kunitz came to Cambridge Massachusetts where I lived, soon after John died, and we were walking along a sidewalk when he asked, How are you? I said, I feel as if something has me in its mouth and is chewing me. He said, It is, and you must wait to see who you’ll be when it’s done with you.
What a help that was! I could allow myself to be transformed. I didn’t have to “get over it” or “move on”—I could be changed.
Another wonderful experience happened soon after. One day I became aware that perhaps everyone who has ever lived has known the loss of someone essential to them. Parents had lost children, children had lost parents, brothers, sisters, partners, friends. And in that moment in my imagination, I could see them—I turned around—and almost did see the millions of humans who had lived for thousands of years who knew how I felt. A great crowd of them—smiling gently and waving. That was the world I could enter—and my brother’s death was the gate to it.
I go to poetry because it knows how it feels to be alive—to be overjoyed, to be grief stricken, to be longing, to be lonely, to be afraid, to be brave, to be devoted—it holds the whole vast complicated wondrous experience of being alive. Every poem is a part of the great poem being written over time.
So, I hope you write poems, and keep writing them throughout your life. We need your voices in the world—your poems will become part of that great poem: the human song.
With every warm wish,
Marie Howe reads "The Gate" for Dear Poet 2022.
Dear Ms. Howe,
My name is Celia, and I am a current junior at Edina High School in Minnesota. I have been in despair after losing one of my great grandmothers this April, and I did not expect a project from my AP Literature class would lead me to the relief I was looking for. She was a native Iowan, though she landed in South Dakota in her later years of life and was my late grandfather’s mom. We coined her Grandma Fred, a pet name granted to her by my brother and me because she had a black cat named Fred. My biological grandpa passed before I was born, and while living, Grandma Fred was a piece of the puzzle that made up the mystery of the man. She is also one of the keys that allowed me to unlock the inner workings of my grandpa’s daughter and wife, otherwise known as my mom and grandma. Last February was the last time I saw her before she passed this April. In reading your poem “The Gate,” I felt less alone in my grief. The words you chose to encapsulate your brother reminded me of all the little, at the time, seemingly unimportant moments my grandmother and I shared. Though it was only for a short weekend, cold weekend in South Dakota, I would say that I had no idea that the gate I would step through to finally enter this world would be the space my great-grandmother’s body made.
What first made me gravitate to your poem was simply your title, “The Gate.” In my AP Literature class, when addressing poetry, we have been taught to evaluate the title before diving into the grit of the poem itself. So my curiosity was piqued as to where this gate was taking us. I had ideas of the gates of heaven and hell, but I read it as a gate from the unknown to the known after reading your poem.
I interpreted the juxtaposition you create between the first and last line of your poem as a gain of perspective. The way your poem worked on a reversed time frame, beginning with your brother's death and ending with the cheese sandwich, lent me the idea that through his death, your once looking around may have concluded. You begin with, “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.” (1-2). I read about how you lost your brother to AIDS, which I know can be a heartbreaking journey watching them pass slowly. In interpreting this piece of you regarding “The Gate,” I wondered if “this world” you reference in the poem is that of relief that he is out of pain or grief as you must live in a world without him? Going back to my point of juxtaposition, you then end your poem with your brother’s statement, “And he’d say, This sort of looking around.” (13). I translated this “looking around” as a sense of uncertainty as if you were waiting for something to come to fruition. Was this waiting related to the death of your brother or just simply waiting for the next step in life to occur?
You fill the space with the beautiful mundane that make up our lives between the beginning and the end. Your use of listing in terms of the tedious activities we all seem to partake in made me think of how said activities number our days. Though we tend to them mindlessly in practice, tying them to your brother makes them envision the beauty in normalcy. For example, the imagery you create of him through lines 6-8 “done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet, rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold and running water,” instills this idea in me of how our days are numbered and marked by the humdrum tasks we partake in. I couldn’t help but smile at the tidbit surrounding the cheese sandwich, as it reminded me of similar interactions my brother and I have. Could you elaborate on the significance of this interaction?
Thank you for your very kind letter. I’m so sorry for the loss of your grandma Fred. (I love that name you called her.) Poetry has been a great help to me throughout my life too. Poetry seems to know all about us humans—our joys, our bewilderments, our sorrows. Poetry knows that everything that is alive will someday die. That fact makes even the most ordinary precious, doesn’t it?
My brother was influenced by his partner Joe, who was a Zen practitioner. My brother was also in recovery, in AA, where he learned to accept life on life’s terms and to be in the present moment. So, when he says, This is what you have been waiting for—he means right now—THIS. Maybe it’s a cheese and mustard sandwich. Maybe it’s a rainy hour. Maybe it’s a bird singing nearby. Maybe it’s a phone call. I think the idea is—stop waiting. Life is happening now. When my brother John died—he was my closest friend—I felt I could not live on without his company. But one day I sort of turned around—and saw, in a vision, in my imagination, in my growing understanding, the millions of other people who had lost someone they did not want to live without. They waved at me, quietly and kindly. And I waved back.
Perhaps it is in that way that I finally entered the world.
You have a great heart, and a deep soul Celia. I hope you are writing your own poetry. It is a wonderful way to discover what you didn’t yet understand. And the world needs your voice.
With every warm wish,
Hello, I am Zackary, a junior attending Bishop Kenny High School. I have always been enthusiastic about writing and always competed in competitions when I can, I have won academic awards and Modern Woodsman letters as a result. I create stories and write them quite often and pair art with the stories. I also like writing lyrical poetry and I am always interested in creative ways to express myself through symbolism, imagery, clever writing and analogies. I have always struggled with reading and it can be hard to pick up creative writing techniques. I struggle with taking tips and methods from writers as a result. The easy to understand writing in your poem “The Gate” allowed me to easily understand what was happening and easily piece together the story being told. I became very intrigued when I read this since I could understand it, and I really felt the message. It expressed the emotion and memory very well. I have always wanted other ways to tell a story through cryptic or minimal methods without losing the meaning and the message, but it is very difficult. One thing I loved about “The Gate” is that you managed to express yourself, tell the story, and still maintain a minimalistic theme. It gave me a feeling of emptiness and deprivation similar to that of losing a loved one. You managed to tell the whole life of you and your brother all the way up until his final moment in a simple fifteen line poem. I especially liked how you threw in the end of his story in the middle of the poem. I hadn’t realized what it meant until I finished and thought about it. The simple comparison of birth to stepping through a gate instantly caught my attention. It was very simple but opened my mind up to the creative ways you express yourself throughout the poem. I do however have a few questions. Assuming the line about your brother rinsing every glass he would ever rinse is another way to stress the idea that he is no longer with us, why was that the chosen example of a final activity along with folding the sheets? I see it as a normal activity that you are stating he was capable of going about by himself. I also am a little confused on the significance of the sandwich; it seems to have some relevance and importance, but I’m unclear as to what exactly it is.
Are there any specific tips or advice that you can give me that can help me develop the skills that you used to make this poem so enticing yet simple. I struggle with the concepts of symbolism and imagery. I wanted to know if you could tell me how to tie imagery in without it being awkward or taking away focus from what’s really going on. I could also use tips to help tie things like the cold and running water and how you describe the actions of a character during speech. You managed to perfect it, and I would really like to know how you did so. It ties the
entire poem together very strongly, and you managed to condense a story of life down into simple lines and keep the intriguing pull of the poem at the same time. You inspired me to stretch my writing out and reach for more vigorous writing techniques. Thank you.
Thank you for your very kind letter. I’m glad you liked the poem. And I can tell from your letter that you care about writing, about stories, about poetry.
I want to share something important with you. Poetry doesn’t have a message. Or a point to make. For me poetry is a way to discovering what I didn’t know—or what I didn’t know I knew. It is walking towards discovery.
My life with my brother John is long—it was not told in that poem—but something of it emerges, yes. I come from a family of 9 children. I was one of the oldest and John was one of the youngest, but we were very close from when he was a small boy. As he grew up, and sober at 23 in AA, he grew very wise. So, by the time he died at 28 years old I had been listening to him closely. He taught me that the present moment is where we live. “This is what you have been waiting for”. —whatever is happening now. That our worrying about the future takes us from that moment. So that what before might have seemed ordinary—the sandwich, the bird song, the dog barking—(you see, he became aware that he was going to die) so everything, rinsing a glass under the water faucet, folding towels, becomes wonderfully real.
Craft is essential, yes. To use as few words as possible, to make images so that people can see and hear etc. But what makes a poem powerful to me is the sense that the writer didn’t know exactly where she was going—and that the writing brought her to an arrival. What matters is the heart. And the heart’s search for expression and meaning. You have a deep heart. I hope you keep writing poetry—we need your voice in the world.
With every warm wish,
Dear Marie Howe,
I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. To me, your poem highlighted the most important parts of death and grieving. I interpreted your work as a celebration to your brother and how his passing allowed you to grow and enjoy the simplicity of life. The simplicity of a cheese and mustard sandwich. I personally think that simplicity should be enjoyed more. Life does not need to be this dramatic action movie with cosmic ups and downs to have value, life should be enjoyed because of the little moments. Death magnifies these ordinary, little moments. Death turns folding sheets into a momentus, melancholy moment and washing dishes into an art. Death adds perspective in a world that gets too caught up in the big picture.
My childhood best friend's mother passed away from cancer a year or so ago. Her passing at first destroyed me but the space her body left allows me to reminisce about her beautiful morals. Her death felt like a physical void, but forced me to fill it with memories. When my house was not a home, I found comfort in the arms of Judy. I can remember her house better than my own. To this day no one, not even her will know how she saved me. Death is an opportunity to venture into the next part of your life with more knowledge and gratitude than before. People only pay attention to the small things when they know time is fleeting, life is too short to ignore those moments until then.
Life deserves to be romanticized. Each cheese and mustard sandwich moment deserves to be remembered. Each passing should be an opportunity to grow and is a gift of anamnesis. Even if you are not ready, death will guide you to a place you have never experienced. Your poem really unpacks a lot of important themes, especially appreciativeness and grounding. Sharing your personal loss provided perspective for readers like me who were too busy stranded in the big picture. Thank you for waking me up.
Thank you for your very beautiful letter. You have known a love that rescued you—and you know love does not ever die. But we do. And yes, as the poet Wallace Stevens wrote “Death is the mother of beauty.” How well you know it.
Poetry knows this too, doesn’t it? If everything lasted forever, we might not need to write things down. We live in a sense of time passing—but oh the richness of each present moment.
You say it so well. You write with grace and elegance. I hope you are writing poems too. Some people believe that every poem has a message or a point. But you already know otherwise. Poetry is a way to discover what we did not know, or what we know and forget we know. We need your voice in the world.
Your letter has lifted my heart today. Thank you.
With every warm wish,
Dear Ms. Howe,
Your poem “The Gate” really touched me personally. We read it in my poetry class at Menaul School in New Mexico where I am currently a senior on the verge of graduating. Part of the reason your poem affected me so much was because I thought I would never be here. When trying to get diagnosed with various health issues I always felt like I was going to die. Because at that point I didn’t know what was wrong, what the pain in my body stemmed from. It wasn’t until I eventually found out what my health issues were, that my nervous system was just extremely amped up, that I was able to understand I was not in fact dying. They say it feels like getting chased by a tiger all the time.
Before I understood the reason for my pain and other symptoms, I truly could find no other reason for it except that some part of me was dying. And I was convinced when that part of me finally went the rest of me would too. With that I wondered how my death would leave my family. Especially my younger sister who is my best friend and closest ally. Because often I feel like when a death happens people think of two things: the deceased’s parents and their own kids if they have any. Rarely do I hear people thinking of the brothers or sisters of the person who has passed. In your poem when you wrote “I had no idea the gate I would step through / to finally enter this world / would be the space my brothers body made” It really touched me. It made me think of my own past wondering of what my own sister would have thought. It made me think about how she would have stepped past the grief and back into life.
She is a very careful, gentle, soul. She likes always to be kind and courteous and respectful. She never wants to be the person to step on somebodies’ toes. When you wrote “This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me” It made me think of my own sister. I wish to tell her now and before this that she is already enough. That this life around her is hers for the taking. To not be so afraid to step on someone’s toes that she forgets about her own wishes and needs. That her kindness is not just meant for everyone else. That it is also meant for her.
Your poem helped me to better comprehend some of my own past fears and realize I still have things to say to my own sister. It reminded me of my still very important role as an older sister. That I am not gone even though I expected myself to be. That it may feel odd to be here but that is okay because I get to be here for her.
Thank you so much for writing this poem and reading this letter.
I am very moved by your letter—it is a kind of prose poem—elegantly holding what is essentially unsayable. Your experience of “dying” while still alive, of feeling that possibility, has brought you to a deep understanding, and I am grateful that you shared some of your understanding with me. I’m also grateful that you remember the love between siblings, how essential that love is as we grow and as we age—if we are lucky and those relationships haven’t been hurt by trauma, or other difficulties.
Poetry, as you know, doesn’t only concern itself with romantic love; it concerns itself with all love—love of sisters, love of the earth, dogs, trees, rivers, sunlight, parents, whatever higher power we might believe in, love of our friends, love of ourselves. Perhaps every poem is in fact a love poem.
I hope you are writing poems, Leah. Your voice is deep and rich, and we need your voice in the world. You are about to graduate—perhaps even this week? Last week? Oh, that is a gate you are walking through. Every gate holds the possibility of transformation. May your life flourish. May you write poems and prose that give your soul voice. Thank you for your beautiful letter.
With every warm wish,
Dear Marie Howe,
My name is Madison, and I am a junior in high school. This is my first time participating in this project and I am very excited to be doing so. It truly is very cool to be able to write letters to poets that I know they will actually read. I have been telling my friends that I will be doing this, and everyone has thought it sounded really cool. There were a few poems to pick from on the website and yours caught my eye. It was the title that I found interesting. Most people had a very long title, but yours was very simple and that seemed interesting to me. When you said what your poem was about it gave me goosebumps. I was in my Stats class when I listened to it, and honestly, I thought the whole class was going to have to see my cry that day. I also have a younger brother, who I couldn’t imagine life without. He makes me question everything around me because of his constant questions, which yes, can be very annoying sometimes. But most of the time, I am just in awe of the childlike way he looks at the world. Things are pure and everything is amazing, and I am envious of that view.
I could never imagine him not being in my life and trying to do that is impossible. I have never experienced any super impactful death this far in my life. For that reason, it almost doesn’t make sense that I would write to you. Most of the example letters I read were people saying how they related to the poem and that is why they wrote to that poet. I chose to reply to your poem because it moved me. I can’t be genuine if there is no strong emotion behind my action. I could have easily picked any poem and just wrote a letter that meant nothing, but I didn’t want to do that. Your poem really moved me, and it made me think of how everyone is in our lives for a reason (family or friends).
About a year ago, I lost a few of my closest friends (they didn’t die, we just no longer speak). I know your poem is about death, but it is also about grief. I was grieving over the loss of a few friendships. There was one in particular that hurt the most because we had been friends for so long. My grief came in a weird way. That friendship died over quarantine, but I honestly didn’t realize we really weren’t friends until a year later. That was when my grief hit me. I felt sad that I had lost something that I hadn’t even realized I lost. I realized that I didn’t know anything about my old friend. She forever lives in my mind as she was in 2019. That isn’t who she is anymore, and I will never be mad at her for her growth. I am proud of her, and she will always hold a special place in my heart; but I still had to grieve. It was so hard to grieve for a living person. Since then, I have made new friends. I have learned that she was in my life for a reason. She taught me what a friend was. She taught me how to love and how to care for someone. Then, she taught me how to lose someone and how to support them from afar.
You may still wonder how I relate to your poem, and honestly, I really might be stretching the meaning here, but hey, the best thing about poetry is it can mean anything to anyone; right? To me, not only is your poem about grief, but it is about how people in your life teach you lessons. In your poem, your brother teaches you about life. He is telling you that you have life and that is so special. I assume at the point of that conversation you were a writer, and I assume again that you had been dreaming about that life. He was telling you that you had the life you wanted. People in our lives are there for a reason. I believe they all teach us a lesson. I am forever thankful for each person that has been in my life and all that they have taught me. Your poem also reminds me how sacred life is and how nothing should be taken for granted. People, moments, places: these are all special things that hold so much value. We need to look more at the simple things in our life because everything is there for a reason. I mean, even your poem has taught me a lesson. I didn’t even realize I had these thoughts until I heard your poem and wrote a letter to you. So, thank you for the lessons. Thank you for your poem. Thank you for all you do. You are so special and thank you so much for having the courage to write this poem. I know it has meant so much to so many others, including myself. So, again, thank you.
Your letter moves me so much! Thank you. I read poems so that my heart can feel something—these days I can get so busy and distracted I can become numb. When I read a poem that moves me, I’m so grateful. Your letter moves me like that.
And yes, the poem is not only about death (and life) but grief. And we grieve our losses throughout our lives. Dear close friends, places, family members, dogs, cats … We love so much—and everything is always moving—how can we not grieve the changes?
When my brother died I didn’t know how to live on. And then one day something happened. I was suddenly aware that many many other people had lost someone who was essential to them. over thousands of years, millions of people had known grief as I was then feeling it. It sounds strange, but I sort of imaginatively turned around—and I saw them, all those people. They were smiling at me, quietly, and quietly waving their hands. I was in their company, no longer alone. And I entered the world in a new way.
It sounds like something like that happened to you. Poetry can try to hold these moments. Poetry can remind us that we are not alone. We belong to the human family that has known what we know, has felt what we feel—and more than that—we belong to the other animals too, and the earth and the moon and the sky. Everything alive, changing, and dying. Poetry holds this deep knowledge. I hope you write poems, Madison. Perhaps you can think of a gate you have walked through—perhaps it was a gate no one saw but you, because it was inside. It sounds to me that you have already walked through many transformations.
Thank you for your letter—it means so much to me.
With every warm wish,