Marie Ponsot is the best poet you've never heard of.
Photo by Michael Lionstar
Her first book, True Minds, was published in 1957 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Pocket Poets Series, but it took until 1981 and some nudging by her friend and fellow poet Marilyn Hacker to put out her second volume, Admit Impediment. Why? Because while her male contemporaries were jockeying for awards and professorships, Ponsot, 88, was rasing seven children, sixteen grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren, all the while writing poems for the simple reason that she loved doing it.
"When things were very intense, I had a rule that I had to write for at least ten minutes before bed every night," she says. "Sometimes I'd be dead asleep at the end of the ten minutes, but sometimes I'd get caught up [in the poem]." She's awake now, and the world has awoken to her finely-crafted verse.
Her 1998 book The Bird Catcher won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she still devotes her to time to teaching a new generation of students at the 92nd Street Y and at the prestigious MFA program at the New School in Manhattan.
Her newest volume, Easy (Knopf, $26), got its name from the section of tightly rhymed songs that stand in contrast to some of her more weighty musings. "When I told a friend I'd finished a new manuscript, he said, 'Terrific, but I hope it's not full of those long, philosophical poems you write,'" she explains. "I said, 'No, this one's easy.' And I realized right away, that was the name of the book."
Easy, however, is perhaps a misnomer. Pre-modernist is perhaps more like it, as even the breeziest of poems in the volume contains the lyrical pleasure that much of academic poetry has forsaken. "Poets are stupid to cut themselves off and say, I only write this kind of poem," Ponsot says. "I love rhyme and I love not-rhyming."
She also believes that when poets stopped rhyming, musical forms like hip-hop arose to pick up the slack. "There's a human desire to put the body's pulse into the poem," she says. "That's what I was doing when I wrote some of these poems. I put them in the book and I thought, 'Fuck, if they don't like them, that's tough.'"
Yet Easy is nowhere near light verse. Several longer meditations on death populate the volume's middle, and even short poems, like "Bliss and Grief", manage to pack Ponsot's deep wisdom into a few spare words: "No one / is here / right now."
"For every dead-serious, world-shaking effort on my part, there's a silly one," she explains, referring to the book's unique shift between registers from one poem to the next. "So there's poems I thought of coming back from a long walk or swimming, and there's also poems about dying because I'm 88. I think [dying's] quite a cheerful subject to speculate about."
Ponsot is quick to add though that by "walking" she doesn't mean exercise. "I don't do it [walking] in this dreadful way your generation thinks of it," she says. "People have learned to use their time in very bizarre ways. You're willing to sit stupified, drinking things in for hours, but then you have to save that one half-hour for exercise."
She also doesn't fall into the modern social division between religious and non-religious, still identifying herself as a Catholic despite the fact she doesn't think the Pope would agree with her on many issues. What saves the faith for her is that Catholicism is a club anyone can join. "Catholics come from the upper class in some socities, but in others, they're the renegade poor," she says, though she also feels that the American wing of the church has too much money and is too far behind the times. "The Church is really stupid on subjects of marraige and abortion," she says, "but that's because the people in charge have no competence on either subject."
As a veteran teacher of many years, Ponsot also has some strong opinions about pedagogy, many of which are contained in her classic volume on composition, Beat Not the Poor Desk (Boynton/Cook, 1982), written with her friend Rosemary Dean. She says her methods for teaching writing are proven to be effective, but they also "make the teacher work like a dog." She says before World War I, public school English teachers taught four classes, while teachers from other disciplines taught five because the schools recognized that the grading for English was so much more time consuming. During the war however, schools asked English teachers to take on more of a burden, then never went back to the old system.
To all the composition teachers out there, she says buy her book and follow the principles and the timetable at the back and "you'll have students who can write anything." She says she'd still be teaching composition, except that no administrator ever believes her when she says she likes to do it. "Grading is a bitch, but there's tricks to that, too," she says.
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For poets, she gives similar advice as to composition students: focus on generation, not theory and self-criticism. "Criticism is baloney until it's in print," she says. "Why do the work of the critic? No one's going to pay for you it!"
Sounds easy, doesn't it?
Marie Ponsot reads from Easy on Saturday, November 14 at 3pm in Pavilion B, alongside poets Campbell McGrath, Tom Healy, and Joy Harjo.