Although Howe came to the art comparatively late she didn't start working seriously on her poems until she was around thirty she arrived with a level of experience that enriched her work. Since many of the poems in What the Living Do recount personal narratives of childhood abuse and later losses in particular, the death of the poet's brother from AIDS and the death of her good friend, the poet (originally from Ann Arbor) Jane Kenyon it is easy for some readers to associate Howe with the Confessional Poets, particularly with the obsessive self-absorption of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath.
But Marie Howe is decidedly not that kind of poet. Although she has a good ear that is attuned to the moment and has allowed her to absorb the best of the fashions of this moment, something else shapes these poems, something that can't be taught or learned. Margaret Atwood wrote about Howe's first collection, The Good Thief, that her readers "occasionally [feel] that cool wind at the back of the neck that makes you think there's one more person in the room than there actually is." That is a lovely way of describing the captivating feel of Marie Howe's poems. These are visionary, even ecstatic and religious poems from a poet who occasionally senses things beyond the realm where most of us spend most of our time. We recognize that realm when we see it, even if we can't describe it.