Every poet has her tutelary gods—those guardians, daimons, or genii of place that guide her and watch over her. Often, though not always, these are fellow writers—colleagues or eminent predecessors conjured by a Lararium of photos tucked on bookshelves or tacked above the writing desk. Their familiar faces keep watch, radiating encouragement and occasional censure, but always with an offering of fellowship, founded on a shared experience of craft and cunning. Such kindred spirits offer proof that many have spent and others will spend their lives in the pursuit of the peculiar activity of writing poems. They, too, overcame fallow periods and the loss of faith, in order to fashion something striking out of words, something life-filled and, perhaps, even lasting. Such household deities offer courage.
Many such guiding spirits peer out from the poems of Marie Ponsot who, now in her tenth decade, has been recording their voices and lives in a half-dozen books of poetry, beginning with True Minds in 1956 and up through her most recent volume, Easy from 2009. (Her gods have also seen her through dozens of books translated from the French, including her brilliant versions of the Fables of La Fontaine.) Ponsot’s women—for her poem-portraits are almost always women—lead by their example. These mothers, daughters, teachers, lovers, bohemians, adventurers, scholars, and poets act out of a fierce resolve to face down successive challenges, both the ordinary and extraordinary. Let the fearless Eunice B. Winkless, photographed midair on horseback in 1904, serve as an example of the extraordinary. Winkless’s daring speaks to anyone—parent, traveler, artist, teacher—who is called upon repeatedly to take a leap of faith.
Imagine the scene: it is the Fourth of July in Pueblo Colorado. Eunice Winkless rides past a crowd of eager spectators atop a tall white mare, her Gibson-girl hair swept up high on her head and tied with a black ribbon. Ponsot’s poem fixes her there:
Regal as Iphigenia
taking the upward course
in a drift of white eyelet muslin
she rides the animal horse.
Merrily fife & drum pace
their climb. Women think prayers,
set to not-look, just in case.
Men do not snigger, forget
their faces/ladies/bets, and stare
once she reaches the platform.
The crowd—women preparing to look away, men staring unflinchingly—has come to see a woman ride a flying horse (Pegasus being, as Ponsot knows, the symbol of poetry) out into thin air. What runs through her mind as stories below her, “[t]he pool glints like a tame star on the ground”? Before she has time to ruminate, the decisive moment arrives:
Out & groundless horse & girl drop
flying clear of equilibrium
Her body jockeying air
touches only bridle & with one
knee, horse, as nothing to spare
they head for the hope they head
in dread in dread for the pool.
Then follows a stanza break, like a caught breath, after which Winkless’s relief mingles with rue:
To herself she says among her wet hair,
“Did it again. Damn fool.”
A photo of the horse and rider, caught halfway between the platform and the pool, hangs in the Smithsonian, but Ponsot’s act of ekphrasis does more than exhibit the scene or breathe life into the airborne heroine. An italic passage, which ends the poem, brings Ponsot herself into the frame:
I need her dreadful ease, its immense self-reference.
I watch to catch her hand-span skill address
the radius of her practice then guess,
self-tested, at its circumference.
Such immense skill may only be guessed at: here is as powerful a figure for the artist as the bell-casting scene in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev or the life-or-death fabulations of Scheherazade. The trick rider and the poet belong to the same guild; both know that in order to get the job done you have to leap. The story has a telling footnote, one which could not have been lost on Ponsot: According to a squib in Time magazine, Winkless “accepted being a part of a horse dive as a dare for a $100 prize.” The good news is that both she and the horse were unhurt by the stunt. The bad news is that, despite her triumph, Winkless was forced to sue to receive her hundred bucks. Ponsot’s tutelary spirits don’t shrink from standing up for what is rightfully theirs. Yet for every one of Ponsot’s women whose voice is heard—e.g., Jacqueline Pascal, wife of Blaise, or Elana Cornaro, the first woman PhD—one understands that there have been countless other women who were not so fortunate. These are the “left-out” women to whom Ponsot continually calls, as in “Love Is Not Love” from The Green Dark (1988):
It is cold.
I am drawing my life around me to get warm.
Holes in blankets can’t be re-woven.
Some thorns caught in it still scratch. Some tear.
I reach for comfort
to the left-out lives of women here and gone.
They lend them willingly. They know my need.
They do not hate me for crying. It beats despair.
Ponsot’s own daring has shaped her life as well as her art. Daring, particularly for a life lived outside of narrow conventions, seems to have run in her family. In “Among Women” Ponsot’s “small grandmother” passes on some crucial bits of advice, which Ponsot, by inscribing them in a poem, preserves, sampler-like, for us and for herself:
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.
She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”
She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
As best they can.
Ponsot wandered, as a young woman, abroad—to Paris, just after the war—where she discovered the fellowship of poets and painters and began her life in the arts. But an artist’s work is not rain-swept boulevards and strong coffee in left-bank cafés; it is frequently mundane, particularly when one is doing the actual writing. The key to being a poet is not prolonged exposure to Europe or hobnobbing with the New York literati but patient work, even if, Ponsot reminds us, it’s only for ten minutes each day. Anyone who wants to be a writer, she has said, can find ten free minutes a day. This is perhaps the best and most practical advice for writers that anyone has ever offered.
In the 1940s, when Ponsot was still in her twenties, the first wave of pioneering women Modernists—most of them born in the 1880s—had already made their marks, trading their wild bohemian peregrinations for something more closely resembling the quiet life, if they were lucky, or the madhouse if they weren’t. Ponsot’s beloved Djuna Barnes, one of her most potent guides, sequestered herself in an apartment at 5 Patchin Place, in Greenwich Village, never venturing out and recalling her halcyon days of Paris in the Twenties through an alcoholic haze. E. E. Cummings, her neighbor in Manhattan’s most charming cul-de-sac, used to call through her open window, in his plummy Brahmin’s lilt, “Are you still alive, Djuna?” Did she call back, one wonders, or merely growl in reply? When once the young Carson McCullers sat vigil outside her front door, Barnes called down, “Whoever is ringing this bell, please go the hell away.”
At that same time, overseas, the poet H. D. (née, Hilda Dolittle) whom Pound dubbed Imagiste, moved—without her longtime companion Bryher, as it happened—from London to Switzerland, where a severe mental breakdown led to years of successive treatments. And the poet and story writer Mary Butts (who like Ponsot was a noted pacifist), having survived both the London School of Economics and Aleister Crowley’s tutelage at the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, did not make it to the 1940s, but died in 1937 and was all but forgotten until the 1980s. Mina Loy—after hobnobbing with the Futurists in Florence and the Dadaists in Paris and frequenting the salon of Gertrude Stein on the rue de Fleurus—wound up moving to the Bowery in Manhattan’s East Village, where she painted and wrote poems about the bums outside her front door. These dynamic Modernists are among the guiding spirits of Ponsot’s work, as well as of her life.
Ponsot—also a Modernist by inclination, but younger, one degree of separation from the Pound era—began her career around the time that her heroines were winding down. Born in Jamaica, Queens, in 1922, and raised in New York City, she embarked on bohemian adventures of her own that would have made her mentors proud. On the Atlantic crossing she met the poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the two became lasting friends. Ferlinghetti was an admirer of Pound, but on the lookout for something new, something perhaps less high-toned and densely allusive, as his own poem “Baseball Canto” suggests:
Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.
Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as number four in his recently launched Pocket Poets series. Number five was Ponsot’s True Minds, in an edition of five hundred copies (and now extremely rare). As she told the poet Benjamin Ivry in an interview for BOMBmagazine, Ferlinghetti was both her champion and friend:
We had exchanged poems when I was working in Paris at UNESCO. I would type something on my lunch hour and pass it on to him. And I’d get something back from him. We would read each other’s poems, and that was a very helpful thing to do. Larry wrote and said he was publishing. He had some poems of mine and if I had any more poems to add to them he would like to do a book, and what did I think? I was having babies fairly frequently and, as you do when you have five by your side, you just say, Yes that’s great, and I sent him a couple of things that I had written. There’s a poem in [that first book] True Minds called “Multipara: Gravida 5,” written after the birth of my fifth child, so that makes it 1953.
The book appeared in 1956. A multipara is a woman who has born more than one child, and gravida 5 refers to the fifth pregnancy. The poem begins:
Come to term the started child shocks
Peace upon me; I am great with peace;
The poem, already exultant, only rises from there:
. . . calling on you love my heart’s hopes rise
With violence to seize as prayer this sweet
Submitting act. I pray. Loud with surprise
Thrown sprung back wide the blithe body lies
Exultant and wise. The born child cries.
It is a short poem, and one suspects that, with her ten minutes a day and her nest full of hungry chicks, short poems were often all she had time for. Christian Wiman, a poet who shares Ponsot’s idiosyncratic and thorough-going musicality, reminds us in his citation for the Ruth Lilly Prize awarded to Ponsot by Poetry magazine: “Marie Ponsot wrote many of the poems for which she will be remembered while raising seven children all by herself. If that sentence alone doesn’t cause you to pause in awe for a moment, then I’d wager you haven’t experienced the demands and decibels of the little darlings.” Still, poems must speak for themselves, Wiman adds, and no amount of compelling biographical detail can make a poem live. (“She is . . . more of a Modernist,” Wiman added, “which is to say a Classicist who has been through hell.”) What is so arresting about True Minds is how alive, how unabashed and raw, how surprised by joy the poems are. They are pure in the way a poet’s first expressions are pure, before they become too savvy or feel too acutely life’s burdens. True Minds is striking for its full-throated cele bration of life, and of the life of the spirit, as in “Easter, New York,” whose capital-c Catholicism seems a rarity today:
Confusion of bells, and all the starling sky
Is shouting, even the gloved policemen are laughing
Because you turn again.
You chose despair, were darkened, now changed you
Chosen veer; you choose; you are; God knows
There’s no despair could quiet you. There is
This afterward, this new now abolishing
Your proven death o darling
How the city rings with light, sheer
Stone is diamond, all perfect squares
Flare into tropics of flowers, the rush of the roller
Skating children tunnels into singing.
Because of its place in the Pocket Poets series and its propinquity to Howl, True Minds was mistaken by some as a further installment of what Ginsberg touted as the “lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills of Empire State out of the moon / yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars”—in other words of the “hollow-eyed and high” Beat ascendency. But identifying Ponsot as one of the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” Ivry suggests, is an unfortunate misnomer. To which Ponsot responds:
Well, it’s only a misnomer if you accept somebody else’s definition of Beat. If you were to let Denise Levertov [whose Here and Now followed True Minds as number 6 in the series] and Larry Ferlinghetti and me and a few other people of that kind shape your definition of what Beat is, you might come to another, extremely comical conclusion. But I don’t think it’s any help to have a label for a poet, do you?
Ferlinghetti himself felt that Ponsot’s work was “in extreme contrast to the ‘bop apocalypse.’” “[T]his is Catholic poetry,” Ferlinghetti told the poet Robert Dana, adding:
She’s a Catholic with a capital “C.” Her new book is just coming out from Knopf. It’s her first book since True Minds. It’s called Admit Impediment, which comes from the same Shakespearean [Sonnet 116] as the title of the first book: “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.”
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” This is as far as you can get from Ginsberg. . . . I wanted to do that, have a very wide-ranging, catholic list. Small “c” catholic.
After True Minds, Ponsot did not publish another book for twenty-five years. She had not even been thinking of publishing her work when her friend the poet Marilyn Hacker alerted her to a new poetry series that Alice Quinn was starting at Knopf. Hacker urged her to send a manuscript. As Ponsot recalls, it took some convincing. Why should she agonize over ushering her poems into print, Ponsot wondered, when Donne and Herbert never bothered to do so? Ponsot earned a Master’s degree from Columbia in seventeenth-century poetry, and it seems that, as with Anthony Hecht, the Metaphysicals became a congenial influence for her Modernist-inflected poems. As Wiman notes: “T. S. Eliot once said that modern poets had lost the ability to think and feel at the same time. If only he could have read Marie Ponsot! Her poems are marvels of intellectual curiosity and acuity, and they will also break your heart.”
The ecstatic register of True Minds is not so much Ginsberg as George Herbert or St. Teresa of Avila. The book radiates confidence and hope. It is comfortable, in the way that Ponsot often is, with mystery. “Analogue” contains a number of the prelapsarian telltales that stand out in True Minds like bright apples at picking time:
Join me because forever perfected
Love’s one moment emerges here
Forever alive. Time undermines us
But our made love stands clear.
Forever, perfected, love, alive: these are words spoken by an Eve who has yet to meet her serpent. Even when the poems acknowledge the encroaching darkness, they soften it with a sustaining and fecund earthiness, as in “Matins and Lauds”:
. . . 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.
Forever, pray, grace, embrace—the unbridled optimism and Eros of the early poems is dazzling.
When Ponsot moved back to New York in the late Forties, after three years in Paris, she brought with her a husband—the French painter Claude Ponsot—and a daughter, Monique, the first of seven children. The marriage didn’t last in the end; in 1970 Marie and Claude divorced. If True Minds conveys an Edenic sense of love and grace, then Admit Impediment (1981) represents the expulsion from Paradise. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediment. . . .” The enjambment drives home the unhappy admission of the disruption of love. (Ponsot mines the same allusions one more time in her third book, The Green Dark, with a section and a poem both entitled “Love Is Not Love,” i.e., that love that “Alters when it alteration finds / or bends with the remover to remove.”)
Ponsot raised her children without Claude. “The kindest thing he ever did was to leave,” Ponsot has said. Her poem “For a Divorce” resounds, to my ear, with the music of Eve at the moment when she realizes she has been expelled from Eden, at the precise moment, in other words, when she becomes aware that she is naked and that she will die:
Death is the price of life.
Lives change places
we ever married, I smile
and mention the arbitrary fierce
glance of the working artist
that blazed sometimes in your face
but can’t picture it;
In the earlier poems there had been “children’s ranks by bells immured / In gowns of light”—now darkness intrudes bringing with it a nagging solitude:
How dear how undark appear the simple
apparently simple wishes of the untried will;
how dark it is here and how
suddenly too still.
Happiness now can only be glimpsed retrospectively, in uneasy glances back to a time before such brutal impediments took root:
exactly I do
darkly I do
recall the you of then when
every time you touch me it was true.
The music here—syncopated, insistent, and wonderfully unique—is typical of Ponsot’s ability to play by ear a commanding free-verse music that is more formal in its way than verse that wears its traditions on its sleeve, as well as far more alive and sonically replete.
One of the most striking things about the poems in Admit Impediment (beyond Ponsot’s signature musicality) is that they understand that men and woman are fundamentally different. This fact is, of course, shatteringly obvious to any parent who has raised both a male and female of the species. Yet this division—ancient, Platonic—is often handled with kid gloves, by writers and critics guided more by a fear of giving offense than the need to say something true about who we really are beneath the skin.
In “From the Fountain at Vaucluse,” a gorgeous sequence of sonnets about the famous French spring, this opposition is worked out in poignant detail:
A girl dips her foot in, holding her shoes.
A boy throws stones so splashes distort
The pool; most males do, as if they confuse
Marking with marring; as if, innocent,
Inept at awe, they smash what they can’t use
Or ignore, here where joy’s intelligent
In the still light bodied by greening blues.
I first heard Ponsot read this poem in a friend’s apartment in the early Nineties, and if I remember correctly, she told us that at the time the poem was written she had given herself the challenge of writing a poem a day—of which the seven in “From the Fountain . . .” were the best. I still remember a number of the lines she read that night. In one of his most celebrated poems, which I first read around the same time, Anthony Hecht describes boys in a similar light—aggressive, arrogant, and brutish:
Think of those barren places where men gather
To act in the terrible name of rectitude,
Of acned shame, punk’s pride, muscle or turf,
The bully’s thin superiority.
By contrast Ponsot’s women, though not free of faults, fare far better:
I hate her heels and pleats. But praise is sudden
In me for her easy move of tenderness.
Her portrait of them is witty and humane:
They are the frail
Employers of pity; they are dumb,
Cute, weak at will.
My daughter did not learn
Those tricks. She neither flirts nor wails.
Generous & gentle, she can stand firm . . .
Ponsot, too, has pity for the silliness of the girls and the brutishness of the boys. Her worry over boys’ martial impulses is particularly moving in her antiwar poems such as “Two Questions,” from The Bird Catcher (1998):
In their poor young butchers
otherwise virtuous it taints memory
with ownerless bitterness.
Our catch-basin cities swirl with blood
until—some larder stocked—we stop
come home wash up and restore
peace as if there were no war.
Anyone who knows Marie has learned to expect the bright button on her sweater: “Still Against War.” She has worn the button for decades, and there has always been a war to which it refers.
If parenting is the preparation for such insights into boys and girls, then Ponsot has looked long at filial relationships from the perspective both of the daughter and the mother (and even the grandmother and great- grandmother, both her own recalled from childhood and the matriarch she has become many times over). Her awareness of successive generations, in which daughters inherit and bequeath, informs her poems throughout, like sap rising inside her family tree. In “Hard-shell Clams” Ponsot’s father receives a fraught eulogy (“Our last chance, last perfect day. // We laughed. We ate four dozen hard-shell clams. / We swallowed what I would not let us say”). And “Out of Eden” is one of several poems commemorating Ponsot’s mother (“Under the May rain over the dug grave / my mother is given canticles and I who believe / in everything watch flowers stiffen to new bloom.” “Museum Out of Mind” then serves as a bridge between the generations: “Later, mother myself, I called you the motherdear / no child of mine would use—but one of the baby / humwords must have come first. And I am an infant here // before your advanced degrees in death. . . .” Other poems from The Green Dark look ahead, as in “The Ides of May,” written “for my children entering parenthood”: “Every generation the child hurries out of child- / hood head bared to the face-making blaze / of bliss and distress, giving a stranger power to / enter, wound, astound.” Ponsot’s words for her children—her desire to instruct, to warn, to guide—remind us that, in addition to being an indispensible poetic voice, she is also one of the great teachers. If keeping track of the number of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren is a strain (I believe its sixteen and nine, respectively), tallying the vast numbers of students she has instructed in the practice of poetry over many decades is like counting the stars in the sky.
One of my prize memories of the Unterberg Poetry Center, when I worked there as director in the early aughts, was accompanying Marie to the Union Settlement Association in El Bario, where Marie led a workshop and gave a reading for a huge crowd of people for whom English was their second language. Circled around her on metal folding chairs, we dutifully passed around paper and pencil, as Marie helped us to write a poem, a tritina, in fact—the form that she had invented with her colleague at Queens College, Rosemary Deen. Like a sestina, a tritina has end-words (or teleutons) that repeat throughout the poem in a prescribed pattern. If a sestina is an imposing black limousine, then a tritina is more of an agile sportster. Instead of six stanzas of six lines, the tritina employs three three-line stanzas, with a one-line envoi at the end.
Marie stood at the blackboard and asked us to write a single line about a place where we felt happy. She then wrote her line on the board and asked us to write a second line that further described that place, and then a third. Once we had our three end-words we reworked them in a concatenating pattern, until we arrived at the final line in which all of the end-words appear one last time. (Sadly, the poem she wrote that day is lost. If only I’d thought to write it out! But of course I was so pleased with my own. Poets are beastly!) Here are some lines from the opening of “Roundstone Cove,” a tritina of Marie’s from The Bird Catcher:
The wind rises. The sea snarls in the fog
far from the attentive beaches of childhood—
no picnic, no striped chairs, no sand, no sun.
One could make a game out of counting all of the poems in which Ponsot is pregnant; there are, of course, quite a few, and this is another: “I walked big-bellied, lost in motherhood, // hunched in a shell of coat, a blindered hood.” It ends:
Alone a long time, I remember sun—
poor magic effort to undo the fog.
Fog hoods me. But the hood of fog is sun.
Her poems after Admit Impediment once again find the sun, even if shrouded in fog. We all wrote a poem, and for many it was the first time. But Marie made it easy; her pedagogical approach is not to fuss but to do, to write, to learn by going where one has to go.
Teaching was not something that Marie embarked on as a “day job,” while she conducted the real work of writing poems evenings and weekends. Her groundbreaking books on the teaching of writing, co-written with Deen, are sadly out of print, though I recommend them to the intrepid online shopper. The one to start with takes its title, Beat Not the Poor Desk, from a passage in Ben Jonson’s Timber:
To this perfection of nature in our poet we require exercise of those parts, exercitatio, and frequent. If his wit will not arrive suddenly at the dignity of the ancients, let him not fall out with it, quarrel, or be over hastily angry. . . . cast not away the quills yet, nor scratch the wainscot, beat not the poor desk, but bring all to the forge and file again; turn it anew.
Perhaps it is the example set by the women she has taken as models, or maybe it is something deep within herself, but Ponsot has never failed to “forge and file again; turn it anew.” Five years ago Ponsot suffered a stroke. It was reported that her speech had been greatly affected and that the storehouse of poetry that she had memorized and recited for decades was wiped clean, like an iPhone dropped into an icy lake. Only her recalling the Lord’s Prayer—in Latin, no less—illuminated once again that lumber room of language and memory where the precious treasures of her favorite poems were locked. As Jim Dwyer recounted in The New York Times in 2010, Ponsot:
remembered that the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila had written a meditation on the prayer. An image came to her of a page from the Roman missal; she could, she said, see the page’s border, but not the words. Then it arrived whole, in Latin: Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. She tried to translate the Latin to English, to reverse-engineer her memory, like a computer hacking itself. “It was getting sticky, until all of a sudden it popped into my head,” she said. “In English.”
Above my writing desk, I have a photo of Marie. Photos of her are often remarkable: her eyes clear, her smile beaming, mingled perhaps only in my imagination with a tinge of melancholy, as in “Bliss and Grief,” from her latest collection, Easy (2009), in which three di-syllables express both joy and pain:
I take courage from that of Marie, gazing smilingly upward beneath a spring tree, and I imagine another cold season endured, as in “Testing Gardening”:
. . . For these few spring weeks you’re a sprawl of flowers, you green the
summer toward its rest in fruited autumn. Yet it’s winter that’s best,
yes, to imagine joy, next. The winter test.
Here, I’m afraid, is where literary criticism (insofar as I’ve managed something of the kind) fails for me and appreciation takes over. As with so many others, Ponsot has been my teacher, and if I were a better student my poems would course with affecting music as hers do. She is for me a guide, about many things. Friendship, for example, as in “Alhambra in New York,” a poem dedicated, like so much of Ponsot’s work, to Deen:
Our talk over dinner
could not be better even
were we caressed (if
we were as we were)
by a skim of air lifting to us
moonstruck off the long pool
at Alhambra years ago, there
where we are, as we know.
And, as with the poems of Christian Wiman, I look to her for the courage to believe. Easy, so named because of Ponsot’s wish to reassure a friend that her most recent book was not full “difficult poems,” revisits Easter Sunday, a callback to her Easter poem in True Minds almost sixty years ago. “On Easter Saturday Bells Whacked the Air” concludes:
no harmony, no purity just hooray
just giant jubilee noise
This is the day the world hath made.
Rejoice and be glad therein.
I once asked a poet if it was more difficult to write poems of joy and praise than poems of difficulty and sorrow. His answer was not particularly satisfactory, and I’m still convinced that words like forever, perfected, love, alive, take courage to utter. It is a question of confronting one’s life, and even one’s death, with something like radiance. I’m not sure I have it in me, but Marie Ponsot has it in spades. I’ve long thought that Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” would make an excellent epitaph, but I now wonder if these lines from Admit Impediment might be even better:
My life was comfortable, easy;
I was lucky; my one triumph was
to experience the world as holy
and to find that humorous.