Marie Howe

What the Living Do by Marie Howe

‘What the Living Do’ by Marie Howe is a beautiful poem about contemporary life. Throughout, the speaker defines what it is the living do. 

The poem uses a wide variety of images in order to help convey what it is the living do. These include things as simple as going shopping and forgetting to call the plumber. The speaker is not living an especially interesting or poetic life, but she is living, and she is struck by her appreciation for herself at the end of the poem when she sees her reflection. ‘What the Living Do’ conveys her individuality at the same time as it does her role within a broader whole of society. 

What the Living Do by Marie Howe


What the Living Do’ by Marie Howe is a beautiful and thoughtful poem about the beautiful simplicity and mundanity of life.

The speaker starts the poem by outlining a few of the things she deals with on an everyday basis. It’s likely that most readers are going to come to these lines and leave feeling as though she spoke to something within their own lives. She talks about clogged drains, missed calls, needs, and wants that aren’t satisfied. She walks, slams doors, makes purchases, and moves through her life, realizing that this is “what the living do.” This is what life is about. This helps her focus on the moment, and when she catches her reflection, she loves it for what it is. 

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-4 

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

In the first lines of ‘What the Living Do,’ the speaker begins by bringing the reader immediately into her life. She’s talking about the clogged kitchen drain and how the Drano isn’t working to fix it. There are things around the kitchen that are piling up, and she still hasn’t called the plumber. The poem focuses on these mundane issues, as well as others, as a way of celebrating what real life is like. These things are what the living do, whether they are pleasant, suited for a poem, cruel, or boring. The everyday lives that the speaker and Jonny spoke of are playing out in front of them. Time goes on, and summer becomes winter. 

The fourth line of the poem is far more lyrical than those which came before it. The speaker uses personification to depict the blue sky as “headstrong,” suggesting that it’s too proud or too confident. It, too, isn’t going to last forever. 

Lines 5-8 

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

The following lines bring in more images of this woman’s day-to-day life. The sunlight tis coming in, it’s too hot, and all of this is part of her life, whether she knew it would be or not. Perhaps, through these lines, the speaker, who may be the poet herself, is coming to terms with the reality of reality. These basic things, like driving and “dropping a bag of groceries in the street,” are what people deal with. It’s “what the living do,” she writes. 

Lines 9-12 

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

“This is it,” she emphasizes, this is life, and it’s going to continue this way. The seasons change, but life basically stays the same. There are basic wants and needs, dislikes, and desires that are going to go on. The wanting never ends, and that’s something the speaker seems to have accepted. Perhaps, realizing that it’s not going to stop is the best way to recognize one’s reality and appreciate one moment for what it is.

Lines 13-15 

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
I am living. I remember you.

In the final two couplets, the speaker takes a bold and beautiful attitude towards her own reflection (a symbol for her life and its problems and joys). She sees herself and is struck by a “cherishing so deep / for [her] own blowing hair.” She steps away from the tough, frustrating moments and takes the time to appreciate what she has. It’s this tone that the poem ends with. 

Structure and Form 

What the Living Do’ by Marie Howe is a fifteen-line poem that is separated out into sets of two lines, known as couplets. These couplets are quite long. This means that when the poem is formatted, it often appears like one long paragraph with some shorter lines. Of these lines, they are all around the same length except for the final six-word line, “I am living. I remember you.” The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is often the case with contemporary poetry, especially that which takes on a  slightly unusual form, in this case, the very long couplets. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout ‘What the Living Do,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “won’t work” in line two and “sidewalk, spilling” in line eight. 
  • Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three as well as lines seven and eight.
  • Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up.” This can be done either through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter
  • Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with a human characteristic. In this case, calling the sky’s deep blue “headstrong.”
  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially interesting descriptions. These should appeal to the reader’s senses. For example, “I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face.” 


What is the purpose of ‘What the Living Do?’

The purpose is to explore the nature of life, even when it’s simple and far from exciting. In some parts, the speaker feels resigned to her fate, while in others, she appears to celebrate the life she leads.

What is the tone of What the Living Do?’ 

The tone is conversational and direct. The text outlines, almost with a resigned attitude, what life is and what one should expect. Struggles may be mundane, but the speaker is living and appreciating them. 

What is the mood of ‘What the Living Do?’ 

The mood is contemplative and content. Readers should walk away from this piece empathizing with the experiences the speaker has and feeling that they too appreciate the life they’re living, even it involves the same mundane activities. 

What is the meaning of What the Living Do?’

The meaning is that no matter how simple or mundane one’s life is or seems, it’s worth living. There are things to celebrate in one’s life, like your own “blowing hair, chapped face,” etc., that may surprise you and that you should cherish.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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