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.” I 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,