Marie Ponsot & the Difficult Art of Ease
by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
arie Ponsot's life has been a long and generous one. Born in 1921, Ponsot has begun her tenth decade, and, as her accomplishments will attest, she hasn't wasted any of her time. She has translated some thirty-seven books from French into English, written numerous radio and television scripts, co-authored two books on the pedagogy of writing, and published six collections of poems. It is further significant that Ponsot accomplished much of this while raising her seven children and while teaching untold numbers of students at Queens College, CUNY, the New School, Columbia University, and the 92nd Street YMHA (two details that ought to give any reader, particularly the mothers and teachers among us, respectful pause). This admirable balance she has long maintained between her work as a writer and her work as a mother and teacher manifests itself in Ponsot's art in a variety of ways; hers is a confident yet compassionate voice that speaks from an unabashedly feminine perspective, one that takes as a given the importance of honoring and celebrating these roles, particularly amid “a culture that is not interested in woman's work of any kind” (Ivry 7).
Yet Ponsot's characteristic voice and vision could not, in any way, be described as soft or sentimental. To the contrary, taking her cue from the metaphysical poets, who served among her first masters and mentors, Ponsot's poetry is an amalgam of fierce intelligence and courtly grace. Her poems speak with power and nuance, engage in language that is densely textured and yet delicate, and strike us as shyly elliptical and, yet, boldly direct. Hers is a poetic that proceeds by way of paradox to convey the brute truth of the human condition and our great good luck to find ourselves in the midst of it. This signature style, which she has spent a lifetime developing and perfecting, together with her focus on the interior drama of personal survival and the miracle of human flourishing amid the challenge of familial relationships and social constraints, make Ponsot's poems fresh and original, yet also universal in their appeal. Ultimately, as with most great poetry, her poems are about language—its saving grace and its unaccountable power to enable us to see more clearly, to speak more truly, and to live more deliberate lives. Given her long devotion to her craft and the exquisite quality of her poetic oeuvre, it is fitting, as well as gratifying, that Ponsot take her place among the distinguished company of American Poets who have written long and well into their 80s and 90s, a group that includes Marianne Moore, Stanley Kunitz, Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Frost.
Biography & Critical Reception
Marie Ponsot has been a New Yorker and a poet nearly all of her life. Born in Queens in 1921, Ponsot (born Marie Birmingham) learned to read by age three and published her first poem at the age of six in The Brooklyn Eagle. Both Ponsot's mother and grandmother loved books and poetry and taught her to love them as well. In one interview, she recalls her grandmother's habit of reciting Tennyson's “Crossing the Bar” when sunset would come, a poem which the young poet internalized and still recalls by heart (Smith 2). Ponsot also emphasizes the fact that her family was Catholic, a reality that figured largely in her formation. As an adult, she continues to lay claim to her Catholic identity: “I still announce myself because I want to be in people's face about it. . . . It's sort of like a club you can't resign from, but anyone can get in” (Smith 2). Being raised in a household respectful of the power of language and the mysteries of faith clearly provided a strong linguistic and imaginative foundation upon which a young poet could build.
After attending Richmond High School and graduating from St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, Ponsot pursued her passion for literature, earning a Master's degree in 17th-Century Literature at Columbia University. En route to Paris after World War II, she met the young poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti on board the ship. The two struck up a friendship which would continue for many years and would lead to his invitation to publish Ponsot's first collection of poems, True Minds, in 1957 when he began the City Lights Series. As luck would have it, however, Ponsot's first book would be overshadowed by Allen Ginsberg's Howl, published in the same series just before her own. According to Ponsot, “Mine disappeared without a trace. . . Anybody who bought Howl would not be interested in what I was writing” (Smith 3). Despite the lack of resemblance between Ponsot's poetry and that of the Beat poets, she has sometimes been linked with them on account of this accident of publication history.
During the course of her three years in Paris, Ponsot met painter Claude Ponsot, and they were married. When they returned to New York, the couple had had their first child, Monique, and was expecting their second. For the next few years, in addition to giving birth to and rearing their children (six sons would follow), Ponsot earned extra income for their growing family by writing radio and television scripts and by producing translations at night when the children were asleep. These latter ventures consisted mostly of French fables, including The Fables and Tales of La Fontaine. The marriage, however, proved difficult to sustain, and the couple divorced in 1970, an event Ponsot describes in both interviews and in her poems as a liberation. By this time Ponsot had begun her career as a professor and writing teacher at Queens College in the SEEK program for disadvantaged students.
It is significant that during this very busy time of her life, Ponsot was continually writing poetry, though she did not seek to publish her work. Rather than regarding this as a problematic circumstance, she describes the experience of writing without concern for publication as a condition of liberty: “Writing poems is a luxury, a triumph! While doing it one is exultant and grateful and cheerful and pleased. You don't wait for someone to approve. If you go on doing it and enjoying it, well, what have you done? You have spent time enjoying what your language makes of you. Very often this makes for a more comfortable self than any other you'll ever meet” (Ivry 8).
Indeed, Ponsot's second collection would not be published for 24 years, and, once again, as with the first, the book appeared at the instigation of a fellow poet. Colleague and friend Marilyn Hacker encouraged Ponsot to submit a manuscript to Alice Quinn, who was editing a new poetry series at Knopf. Ponsot agreed and (with characteristic humility) describes that submission as a “slightly organized” collection of twenty pages of poems to which she added another batch, all of it “cobbled together in a great lump by me in about two days” (Ivry 10). The result was Admit Impediment (1982), a collection of forty-nine poems which serve to complement or answer her initial volume, True Minds, each title evoking Shakespeare’s celebrated sonnet on the supposedly blissful state of the marriage of minds, the later title tinged with irony earned by hard experience. The volume is dedicated to the women in the Ponsot family and begins with a powerful renunciation of marriage, “For a Divorce,” expressing the speaker's new-found independence, even as it acknowledges her sense of loss:
The state we made of love
that you fled out of,
I have enlarged
into a new mainland geography
where I move as if unburdened where
my burdens bear me.
You said once I had
taught you human speech.
I am glad
I never taught you to dance. (Ponsot, Admit Impediment 4)
Ponsot, with her characteristically deft handling of metaphor here, exults in the new country she finds herself both ruling and occupying as a single woman. She explores and celebrates this state of being throughout the volume, at one point lamenting the loss of a friend who died before she was able to liberate herself from work that was “serviceable, subordinate” in the poignant elegy “Sois Sage O Ma Douleur” (31), and at another moment asserting her own freedom even as she works within the tight strictures of poetic form:
I'd like to assume,
from my April birthday,
I quickened in the womb
on the 4th of July.
If you suffered as I
a sternly fought tendency
to endless dependency
you'd know why. (26)
This theme of discovery of freedom from and, yet, through, limitation sounds throughout Ponsot's work, but becomes particularly noticeable in the poems written after her divorce. As if to announce this recovery of her autonomy, represented most readily in the powers of speech poetry provides her with, she declares in the poem “Live Model,” “I've got my old quick walk / & my big dirty voice back” (61). Thus, Admit Impediment proves to be a watershed moment, preparing the way for the poet's work of recovering the self she had temporarily lost and discovering the new self she has become.
While Ponsot was making up for lost time in publishing her poems, she was also putting to practical use the wisdom she had been acquiring during her years of teaching. In collaboration with friend and colleague, Rosemary Deen, Ponsot published two books on the pedagogy of writing: Beat Not the Poor Desk: What to Teach, How to Teach It, and Why (1982) and The Common Sense: What to Write, How to Write It, and Why (1985), both of which have since become classics of their genre. It is characteristic of Ponsot's generous nature that she enjoyed teaching students what she herself loved best to do, and that spirit of generosity pervades the assignments in these books and her approach to the vocation of teaching.
After the appearance of The Green Dark (1988), Ponsot's third collection published by Knopf, Ponsot retired from teaching and devoted herself to writing full time. The Bird Catcher appeared in 1998 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, thus bringing to Ponsot's work new—and much deserved—critical attention. Her fifth collection, Springing: New and Selected Poems followed in 2002, and her sixth and most recent collection, the much-praised Easy, was published in 2009, the latter firmly establishing Ponsot as a still-evolving artist engaged in producing her best work. Richard Howard once exclaimed at a sold-out poetry reading in New York that all Marie Ponsot has to do is live long enough and she will achieve the recognition she deserves (Ivry 3). In addition to the critical acclaim she has received, the awards she has amassed have proven Howard's assertion true. A finalist for the 1999 Leonore Marshall Poetry Prize, Ponsot has been the recipient of a Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize, a Robert Frost Poetry Award for lifetime achievement, and The Modern Language Association's Shaughnessy Medal. In addition, she was recently elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2010.
In recent months, Marie Ponsot has had to respond to what is, perhaps, her life's greatest challenge thus far. After a stroke suffered in the summer of 2010 left her with acute aphasia, Ponsot found herself trying to recover simple vocabulary and syntax, as well as the memory of the things those words and structures name. Unable to recall the simplest words, she decided she must “go back to the earliest thing I ever knew by heart,” not a poem, but the Lord's Prayer (Dwyer). Unsuccessful at conjuring the once-familiar words in English, she tried to recall the French “Notre Pere,” but faltered soon past the opening. It was only when she resorted to the Latin version of the prayer that the full Pater Noster came back to her. Since those first steps toward the recovery of her faculties of speech and, later, the ability to write, Ponsot has worked steadily to reclaim the gift of language she nearly lost. In a recent conversation with the poet, I was grateful to learn that she is writing poems again and has since returned to her busy life of public readings and appearances—a cause for celebration, indeed.
Marie Ponsot's preoccupations as a poet are evident early and late. The same compression of language, love of word-play, attention to form, and rich texture of allusion characterizes the poems from True Minds through Easy. Ponsot is, primarily, a lyric poet, but one with a gift for narrative, as well. The genre of the fable, for example, is very much at play in Ponsot's work—an element that makes a great deal of sense, given the close attention paid to fables in her work as a translator and in her work as a mother reading to her children. In addition, these poems often contain a dramatic element, as Ponsot takes on the voice of the characters in the fables, whether it be “Peter Rabbit's Middle Sister” or “One Grimm Brother to The Other.” Thus, Ponsot makes liberal use of the three classic poetic genres, creating collections of poems that are varied in voice and vision.
Ponsot's formal dexterity is another source of pleasure for the reader of her poems. Variations on sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles, use of stately blank verse, and inventive nonce forms are plentiful in her volumes. However, as with all fine poets, her use of form is never merely decorative. Quite the contrary, Ponsot describes poetic forms as “instruments of discovery”: “The forms create an almost bodily pleasure in the poet. Where you're doing is trying to discover. They are not restrictive. They pull things out of you. They help you remember” (Smith 4).
This paradoxical concept of formal stricture as a liberating device is evident, both in terms of form and content, in Ponsot's early sonnet, “Matins & Lauds.”
Excited as a sophisticated boy at his first
Passion of intellect, aware and fully free
Having lost title to full liberty; struck
Aware, for once, as I would always be;
It day and I still shaken, still sure, see
It is not ring-magic, not the faithing leap of sex
That makes me your woman; marks our free
And separate wills with one intent; sets
My each earlier option at dazzling apex
And at naught; cancels, paid, all debts.
Restless, incautious, I want to talk violence,
Speak wild poems, hush, be still, pray grace
Taken forever; and after, lie long in the dense
Dark of your embrace, asleep between earth and space. (Springing 91)
One of only eight poems from True Minds that Ponsot chose to include in Springing: New and Selected Poems, the sonnet survives the poet's own rigorous standards and, thus, receives the imprimatur of the mature artist. And it is evident why. The human freedom the speaker achieves through discovery of and commitment to her Beloved, together with the poetic freedom to speak truth by means of surrender to structures of language and form, leads the speaker (and the poet) to places she might not otherwise go. This two-fold paradox is evident in the description of her state as “fully free/ Having lost the title to full liberty.”
As the poem unfolds, in attempt to justify this seeming paradox (a form of unconscious homage, perhaps, to her poetic mentor, John Donne, whose poems often proceed in much this same way), the speaker finds herself to be both “still shaken” and “still sure”--having taken “the faithing leap of sex” with her lover and, thus, become 'his' woman, but also finding their “free and separate wills” joined with one intent and, thus, claiming him as hers. This dual-yet-single identity, appropriately enough, fills her with conflicting desires: “I want to talk violence/ Speak wild poems, hush, be still, pray grace,” an agitation of articulation that suggests the coalescence of sexual and poetic urgency that passion inspired in her. The last line concludes the poem, an Italian sonnet, with the location of the speaker, both in time and space--an image that the poem might have opened with, effectively turning the poem (in a sense) on it's head. The speaker longs to continue to “lie long in the dense / Dark of your embrace, asleep between earth and space.” Here, at the end, we discover the poem to be an aubade, a love song sung at daybreak as she lies in the arms of her Beloved, never more awake, yet blissfully aslumber in the dark realm to which passion has transported her.
This strange, transitional (and paradoxical) state of being evoked throughout the poem is adumbrated in the title. “Matins & Lauds” are two of the seven offices of the Liturgy of the Hours that were, originally, one, with lauds indicating recitation of the psalms of praise concluding matins, or morning prayers said at dawn. The two have, since the Middle Ages, become separated to name night prayer and prayer at dawn, respectively. In yoking them together, Ponsot suggests that her poem is both night and morning prayer, both dark vigil and celebration of the coming of the sun. Yet she is also reminding us of the closeness of identity these two liturgical hours have shared, an image that parallels the two formerly-separate lovers who have become one.
In yet another instance of paradox, even as the title suggests that the poem is a sacred prayer (or pair of prayers), the Italian sonnet form declares it to be a secular poem—a hymn to Eros—thus creating a coupling that effectively raises human love to the level of the divine. Again, this is a trope familiar to the reader of 17th-Century poetry, a tradition the poet honors and yet makes new in invoking it to describe her own situation. Another element at work here is Ponsot's own abiding sense of the sacramentality of sexuality—and of all creation, finally—an incarnation of the Catholic theological vision that informs her work. Sex, after all, is a “faithing leap,” a witty inversion of the “leap of faith,” an articulation that parallels falling in love with spiritual conversion, both processes that entail being “born again” and bringing into being a new identity. In submitting to the demands of love and to the demanding form of the sonnet, the poet enacts the theme of the poem and demonstrates, unequivocally, that what she says is true.
Another preoccupation that runs throughout Ponsot's poetry is a sense of the pressing urgency of time, a theme which (as one might expect) becomes more prominent in her later work. Indeed, the poems in Easy contain almost obsessive intimations of mortality, reminding us that we all live our lives “in the now before then the dark” (“We Own the Alternative,” 31). Ponsot's response to this sobering reality, however, is not to lament over the inevitable, but to determine what we might do with that knowledge. The happy discovery the poet arrives at is that time liberates us as much as it imprisons, that in old age we are “free not to be young” (31) and, therefore, able to offer full attention to the present moment rather than being consumed with anxiety about the future.
In “Train to Avignon,” an elderly speaker and her companion observe a crowd of young Dutch travelers board their train. While the youngsters worry aloud about reaching their destination, complaining “this train stops everywhere,” nervously drinking “Cola pop-top with their chips,” trying to annihilate time, the women enjoy the journey, savoring their simple lunches (“white-fleshed peach,” “salami & bread”) in unhurried expectation of their arrival:
We, extravagant, chat easily,
take our vagrant ease. We’re off,
stopping & starting, off-season,
off-peak, on time, on our own. (37)
Old age brings the happy condition of freedom from the bondages of time, urgency, and false constraint. The women travel through life “off” yet “on time,” having learned to live in time without being its creature, past their prime yet braving risks the anxious young could barely imagine. To grow old, according to Easy, is to learn to live paradox, to discover power through diminishment, and to cultivate ease in extremity.
The poem that follows “Train to Avignon” is “Last,” a lyric that demonstrates and embodies Ponsot’s preoccupations with the strictures imposed by both time and poetic form, and the triumph of freedom achieved by working within and against these limitations:
Waste-pipe sweat, unchecked, has stained the floor,
under the kitchen sink. For twenty years
it's eased my carelessness into a mean soft place,
it's dirty secret dark, in a common place.
Today the pipe's fixed. Workmen rip up the floor
that's served and nagged me all these good/bad years.
They cut and set in new boards, to last for years.
House-kept no more, I waltz out of the place
clean-shod and leave no footprint on the floor,
displaced and unfloored. This year, nothing goes to waste. (38)
The gritty images of the “waste-pipe sweat,” the stained floor, the dark space concealed under the kitchen sink are suggestive of a life long in need of repair and our habitual human neglect of what most needs our attention. Midway through this catalogue of secret grief, we are surprised and cheered by the sudden declaration: “Today the pipe's fixed.” The courage required to break with the past, rip up the rotten floor, and set fresh new boards among the old is an assertion of Ponsot's hopeful disposition. The results are immediate, as the speaker finds herself no longer “house-kept,” or bound by what no longer serves. Newly liberated, she waltzes, instead of walking, out of the house, no longer hemmed in by place, chance, or circumstance, finding herself free to make the final vow that she will live for and in the now: “This year, nothing goes to waste.” The ambiguity of this declaration gives the last line a double edge and double impact: she will make use of all things at her disposal, and she will relegate the useless (“nothing”) to the status of waste.
The fact that this declaration of independence takes the form of a tritina—a form Ponsot is credited with inventing—is yet another instance of her formal wit. Use of the same three words to end each line in the three tercets (“floor,” “years,” and “place”) establishes an echo, as well as a pattern of repetition and sameness that echoes the speaker's pattern of repeatedly postponing the repairs to her kitchen (and her life). In keeping with the conventions of the tritina (a form she adapts from the sestina and employs often in previous volumes), Ponsot then uses the same three words in the final break-away line, suggesting sameness yet introducing the concept of difference. The words “place” and “floor” have become “displaced” and “unfloored,” the prefixes and suffixes serving as mono-syllabic negations of the limitations suggested by the root words' meanings. Then, in one final act of formal bravado, Ponsot concludes the poem with the same word she opens with, “waste,” thus breaking the pattern of her own invented form and imposing even greater restriction on herself. The surprise recurrence of the word serves to demonstrate that the poet is, indeed, making good on her promise—from here on out, “nothing goes to waste,” in her life or in her work.
The poems in all of Marie Ponsot's books hold to this measure of achievement. For seven decades Ponsot has written poems characterized by linguistic richness and formal elegance, poems that have engaged literary tradition and offered readers “the music of the English language” (Ivry 12), and poems that, taken together, constitute a voice as unmistakable and original as any among her distinguished contemporaries. The fact that Ponsot continues to write constitutes both present gift and future promise: “You manage as long as language lasts,” Ponsot once observed, articulating her wise—and hopeful—vision, “And language lasts a long time” (Ivry 10).
Jim Dwyer, “After a Stroke, a Poet Hunts for Language Lost,” New York Times, June 25, 2010.
Benjamin Ivy, Interview with Marie Ponsot, BOMB, 03/2003 LITERATURE.
Marie Ponsot, Admit Impediment (New York: Knopf, 1982)
Marie Ponsot, Springing: New and Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 2002)
Marie Ponsot, Easy (New York: Knopf, 2009)
Dinita Smith, “Recognition at Last for Poet of Elegant Complexity,” New York Times Magazine, April 13, 1999.