Bus Stop Poetry

by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Marie Howe

At the beginning of November, Marie Howe (writing) was meeting her daughter at a bus stop in Greenwich Village when she saw a big blue circle drawn on the sidewalk in chalk, along with the words “Happiness Here.” “Kids were walking by and they would go, ‘Oh, look!’ and stand in the middle of the circle,” she says. For Howe, this benign graffito constitutes a poem of the loveliest order. In her new role as State Poet of New York, to which she was appointed by Governor Cuomo in August, she plans to follow the example of the blue circle and bring poetry to places it otherwise might not be found.

Howe didn’t take up writing poetry seriously until she was nearly 30. Prior to that, most of the poems she read were in the Bible (she was one of nine children in her Catholic family) or worn-out anthologies from the library of the small, rural high school where she taught English. But when she was 29, her father died, and her life changed:“I thought, We do die, life is finite. I don’t want to do anything I don’t want to do anymore.’”

So she didn’t. The following summer, on a fellowship for high school teachers, Howe visited a writing workshop at Dartmouth College taught by Karen Pelz. When all the students had said what brought them to the poetry class, Pelz explained that she was writing her spiritual autobiography. Howe looked at her skeptically and asked, “Who are you to do that?” Pelz replied that she was a lyric poet, and Howe realized she wanted to do the same thing.

The State Poet’s term lasts two years, and though it doesn’t come with funding, Howe won’t let that diminish her intentions. She has lived in Manhattan for the last two decades, but she wants to think outside the city. “New York City kind of is a poem,” she explains. “It needs poetry too, but I think of Utica, Troy, Syracuse, Schenectady, Rochester, the places where my sisters—my brilliant, deep-feeling, lovely sisters—get up, get their kids to school, get in their car, go to their job, work all day, come home, and don’t find poetry.”

Given the serendipitous nature of her own path, Howe is perhaps ideally suited to recognize a poetry guerilla wielding a stick of chalk, and to appreciate the value of an unexpected poem in everyday life. Even at a bus stop, a poem “allows us to drop down to the deeper layers of our being, so we’re not merely living off of surfaces, which we find so exhausting.”