Collections by poets Marie Howe and Jean Valentine for National Poetry Month: NPR

WW Norton & Company, Alice James Books

Covers of new poetry collections by Marie Howe and Jean Valentine.

WW Norton & Company, Alice James Books

National Poetry Month includes spring flowers and some of the biggest poetry publications of the year. And as April comes to a close, we wanted to present you with two of our favorites: retrospective collections from two of the best poets of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: Marie Howe and Jean Valentine.

Howe's New and selected poems makes a succinct case for Howe's status as an essential poet. The new and collected poems of Jean Valentine collects all the work of the beloved late poet, a monument to a cherished career.

New and selected poems by Marie Howe

Marie Howe writes some of the most devastating and devastatingly true poems of her career – and some of the best written by anyone. Her subject, from a bird's eye view, is simply the big questions and their unanswered questions: What are we here for? What does it mean to do good? What have we done to the environment? What are the consequences and what do we who are here now owe to those who will follow us? And yet her tone and straightforward delivery make her poems as approachable as friends. Howe is the rare poet whose poems you want close to you for company, camaraderie, and empathy; and yet they are literary works of the highest order, layered, full of booby traps, shoots and ladders that suddenly transport you between the words. It is tough love that these poems offer, but it is undeniably love.

This first retrospective collects a book's worth of new poems, along with a wide selection from Howe's four previous collections, each of which was a landmark when published. Her closest antecedent might be Elizabeth Bishop, who also didn't write much, or publish much, but everything she wrote was good, if not capitol-G-Great. Howe is most famous for What the living do (1997), which remains one of the best books about youth and grief, regret and moving forward, if not beyond. It's about a world where “everything I ever tried to keep by force, I lost.” Surprising, almost koan-like statements like these emerge from modest domestic scenes and turn everyday life into a great drama.

The typical speaker of a Howe poem is a woman who sounds a lot like Marie Howe, even when she speaks through the voice of the biblical Mary, as she does in Magdalene (2017): “I was driven by desire to desire.” She is serious except when she is being funny, although she rarely laughs out loud funny – it is more a kind of inner laughter, like a rising light or like paper rustling in your chest. She is comforting, except when she is testing herself and the readers, bowing to the simple, Herculean responsibilities that come with life, parenthood. She is tough, sometimes even stoic, except that in almost every poem there is a moment of surprise, a revelation, a piercing insight that injects a kind of pure ecstasy.

Some of the new poems are among the best Howe has written, placing them among the best of the period. These poems are set “In the middle of my life – just past the middle” and mourn lost friends; consider a daughter's sudden maturity; deplore the destruction of the environment; and take the moral standard of this most disturbing age. Each of these everyday dramas becomes an entry point into the deepest form of human reconciliation, where we must finally admit where language is failing us. These poems also feature a recurring character, “our little dog Jack,” who, with the best intentions, becomes one of Howe's most devastating metaphors. But all metaphors have their origins in clear facts. As Howe writes in “Reincarnation,” one of her best poems, “Jack may be himself—a dog.”

Light Me Down: The New and Collected Poems of Jean Valentine

This is one of those monumental events in American poetry: the life's work of a great poet collected in one great book, a chance to savor all that Jean Valentine accomplished in her long and prolific career. As a young poet, Valentine (1934-2020) won the 1965 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for her debut collection, Dream Barker. In 2004 she won the National Book Award for Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965-2003. In between and since, she was always highly regarded by the mainstream poetry establishment, winning the most awards available to an American poet.

But Valentine's real influence was as a friendly ambassador to and from the avant-garde. It is difficult to pin down Valentine's poems: I wouldn't call them experimental, but they are anything but straightforward in their fallacies and large leaps of association. Quite early in her career, Valentine began working in a style where she teased the reader with images, gently suggesting how the poem should go, until perhaps a clap of thunder at the end disturbs the peace. She always knows where to end. Choose almost any poem and the last few lines will shock you with their unlikely inevitability.

Valentine writes about everything – love, death, sex, the turbulent political situations of the past half century – with simultaneous candor and mystery: “I have been so far, so deep, so cold, so much,” she says prophetically in an early poem. She claims that poetry can be created almost entirely through suggestion, that the poet must trust the secret connections between one word and another, and trust that the reader will be willing to journey with the poet along those underground currents. In a short poem, a haiku from 1992, 'In Memory of David Kalstone', dedicated to the literary critic who died in 1986, Valentine gives as succinct a representation of her poetics as possible: 'Here is the letter I wrote,/ and the ghost letter underneath -/ that is my life's work.” Valentine's poem draws our attention to the words beneath the words, to what is said between the words, in the white space surrounding the poems.

Elsewhere, Valentine opts for simple observations, fueled by a touch of mystery, as in the short elegy “Rodney Dying (3)”:

'I vacuumed your bedroom

one gray sock

got sucked up and it was gone

sock that you wore on your warm foot,

walked to places, turned around,

walked back

also remove your heavy shoes and socks

and swam”

There is no sudden profundity here, nothing that you could call insight, in fact, at least not overtly. Instead, Valentine asks for an object, the sock, to carry the grief. This is a technique that poets call the 'objective correlative': it is an image that takes the place of an emotion or a knot of emotions. That modest object, or actually just the word for it – sock – becomes a vessel, a kind of canopic jar to store sadness in, but also to let it rattle a bit. The poem ends with what could be an allegory for death, but is also a celebration of Rodney's vitality. The language is as clear as it can be, and yet I leave the poem with uncertainty, as hopeful as it is desperate. Valentine is an expert at contrasting these kinds of contradictions. The emotional climate in Valentine's Day poems is ambivalent in the best way, lit by conflicting energies.

And while this book is a monumental celebration of an extraordinary legacy, it is also sad to note: Valentine was, until recently, an inexhaustible and generous force in American poetry. It feels impossible to accept the fact that she is dead while reading poems that are so deeply alive.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, including The shaking answerswhich won the 2018 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the collection of essays We begin in joy: how poets progress.

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