Friday, 17 May 2019

What The Living Do, by Marie Howe

This article is an analysis of the poem What The Living Do by Marie Howe.

Apostrophe a poetic device whereby a nonhuman or absent person is directly addressed. The person being addressed in this poem is Johnny. Now here is where some biographical criticism is useful.

If we know that the poet had a younger brother named Johnny who shortly before the poem was written died of AIDS that's very useful in helping us understand the poem.

If we know that Marie how loved this brother very much and was the primary caregiver for him during the last weeks of his life that is even more helpful and those things are true.

So with all of that in mind let's read the poem.

What The Living Do Poem:

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

What The Living Do Analysis:

Well, we might start our consideration of this poem by asking what do the living do.

The poem emphasizes the little everyday stuff getting the kitchen drain unclogged, dropping a bag of groceries, buying hairbrush, slamming a car door in the cold. Our lives are a continuous stream of little dramas like that and that is what the living do.

But the sauce begins to thicken a little bit with the phrase what you called that yearning.

Living is more than just dropping your groceries or calling the plumber. To be living also means to yearn hope. We yearn for spring to come we hope to get that phone call or not to get it. We yearn for a letter, an email, a text kiss.

If we're alive we have all kinds of yearnings all kinds of hopes and more important even than that to be living means to remember. That is perhaps the greatest gift of life the capacity to remember.

So in some ways this poem "What The Living Do" isn't all that different in its subject matter at least from Wordsworth's poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.

 I want to go back to these lines:
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
So what is she cherishing? Exactly surely not her hair we've seen pictures of that. Surely not her chapped face no she cherishes being alive. She cherishes having a consciousness that allows her to think to feel to go places to do things in short to live.

The writer Henry James once said I'm paraphrasing that a life well-lived is a life upon whom nothing is lost.

I don't know that any of us can achieve that but we can make the case I think that full living is being aware and appreciative of every moment. Cherishing the small details of our days the hopes and yearnings that keep us looking forward and most importantly our memories which keep us in touch with those, we loved in our past.

what-living-do-by-marie-howe


It doesn't matter what I say about these poems students always ask what's the subject and what's the theme.

So clearly I think the subject is living or we might say that the subject of this poem is exactly expressed by the title What The Living Do.

So what's the theme of What The Living Do?

Maybe something like this. To live fully is to develop an awareness and appreciation for the small moments in life, life's hopes and yearnings and the memories we accumulate.

Also Read: