Sarah Howe was born in Hong Kong in 1983 to an English father and Chinese mother, and moved to England as a child. She studied English at Cambridge, where from 2010-2015 she was a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, before taking up a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at University College London. She has been the recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and the Harper-Wood Studentship for English Poetry, as well as fellowships from Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Her pamphlet, A Certain Chinese Encyclopaedia (Tall-lighthouse, 2009), won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. Her first full collection, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), won the T.S. Eliot Prize and The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. She is a Lecturer in Poetry at King’s College London.

Howe’s work is extraordinarily varied in subject and form. The poems in Loop of Jade include meditations on Chinese history and culture, responses to works by Bonnard, Puccini and Sir Philip Sidney, and poems in dialogue with Borges, Pound and Ashbery. Running through these diverse works is a preoccupation with identity, childhood, memory and the act of poetic composition itself. The opening of ‘Crossing from Guandong’ illustrates the suppleness with which Howe evokes the process of recollection:

Something sets us looking for a place.

For many minutes every day we lose

ourselves to somewhere else. Even without

knowing, we are between the enveloping sheets

of a childhood bed, or crossing

that bright, willow-bounded weir at dusk.

Tell me, why have I come?

Howe’s formidable technical skill is displayed fully in this passage. The subtle slant-rhymes dramatise the murky transitions between distinct but related memories; the syntax stretches in a probing, exploratory way across several run-on lines; and while the diction is characteristically measured, even conversational, the whole is held together by an intricate and unobtrusive structure of consonantal patterning, The elegant, loop-like trajectory of these lines is also detectable in the long, titular poem, a sustained meditation on memory, place and language, which alternates passages of prose and lineated verse. The prose sections – which are, in fact, often composed metrically – describe the poet’s conversations with her mother about the latter’s childhood in China.  Characteristically, Howe’s pragmatic acknowledgement that she ‘can never know’ the places of her mother’s upbringing – that they will remain always beyond her imaginative reach – precipitates some of her most dazzling descriptive writing:

I can never know this place. Its scoop of rice in a chink-rimmed bowl, its daily thinning soup.

Harbour thunder echoes in their sleeping room: outside, the rattling, clanking bits of boats.    She huddles closer to the other girls.  On slight brown arms, hairs begin to lift.  The brightest    smack of lightning will induce (can this be right?) the bunk’s frame, like some kind of   celestial tuning fork, to zing with a preternatural hum.

The ‘preternatural hum’ of this iron bed-frame can be felt elsewhere in her work, especially in poems focussed on objects. ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’, the opening poem of the collection, renders its quotidian subject so exactly that it becomes newly mysterious, radiating an intense and ambiguous emotional charge.

the twin lids

of the black lacquer box

open away


a moonlit lake

ghostly lotus leaves

unfurl in tiers

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Howe’s work is the way in which she situates these intimate moments of imagination and experience in broad historical and cultural contexts. ‘Others’, a poem concerned with the idea of ‘future children’, begins with an epigraph from Genesis, and in its winding etymological investigations takes detours through French, Hebrew, Greek, Chinese and English, before arriving at this question, striking in its simplicity: ‘I wonder if they’ll have your blue eyes.’ It is a moment characteristic of Howe’s body of work, which combines a wide range of knowledge with a generous sensibility to create poems of remarkable intensity and immediacy.

Howe’s expertly modulated and nuanced reading of her poems helps deepen our appreciation of the whole body of work.

Sarah' recording was made on 31st October 2017 at The Soundhouse, London, UK.

Poems by Sarah Howe

Sarah Howe in the Poetry Store

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Books by Sarah Howe


Hawthornden Fellowship

Prize website

Harper-Wood Studentship for English Poetry

Prize website

Fellowship Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute

Prize website

Fellowship Civitella Ranieri Foundation

Prize website

Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors for A Certain Chinese Encyclopaedia

Prize website

T.S. Eliot Prize for Loop of Jade

Prize website

The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award for Loop of Jade

Prize website

shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize

Prize website

Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection

Prize website

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