Remembering Marie Ponsot 1921-2019

Marie Ponsot, who died on July 5, 2019, at the age of 98, left a legacy of elegantly crafted, deeply meaningful and yet entirely unique poetry in five collections, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Robert Frost Medal, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement, among others. From the Washington Post article regarding her death,

Reflecting on Ms. Ponsot’s work, the poet and critic Susan Stewart once wrote: “What she has written of her relation to the night sky — ‘it becomes the infinite / air of imagination that stirs immense / among losses and leaves me less desolate’ — could be claimed by her readers as a description of her own work

Married to the painter Claude Ponsot, she wrote her first poetry collection dedicated to him, and titled it True Minds, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. They had seven children, and when they divorced in 1970, she published her second book of poetry entitled Admit Impediment, also taken from the same sonnet: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments.” This is the sort of imaginative wordplay one can find in her work, not without its subtle humor either.

She retreated from publishing for about 25 years, although she continuously wrote poetry. She said it just “didn’t occur” to her to publish. There’s also an element of deep humility in her life and voice, which also rings confidently and with both gusto and acumen.

This poem I found particularly gorgeous:

This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo

       In a time of dearth bring forth number, weight, & measure.–    William Blake

Describing the wind that drives it, cloud
rides between earth and space. Cloud
shields earth from sun-scorch. Cloud
bursts to cure earth’s thirst.      Cloud
–airy, wet, photogenic–
is a bridge or go-between;
it does as it is done by.
It condenses. It evaporates.
It draws seas up, rains down.
I do love the drift of clouds.
Cloud-love is irresistible,
untypical, uninfinite.

Deep above the linear city this morning
the cloud’s soft bulk is almost unmoving.
The winds it rides are thin;
it makes them visible.
As sun hits it or if sun
quits us it’s blown away
or rains itself or snows itself away.

It is indefinite:
This dawns on me: no cloud is measurable.
Make mine cloud.
Make mind cloud.
The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering.
A lucky watcher will catch it
as it makes big moves:
up the line of sight it lifts
until it conjugates or
          dissipates,
its unidentical being    intact
though it admits flyers.
It lets in wings. It lets them go.
It lets them.
It embraces mountains & spires built
to be steadfast; as it goes on
it lets go of them.
                It is not willing.
                 It is not unwilling.
Late at night when my outdoors is
indoors, I picture clouds again:
                  Come to mind, cloud.
                  Come to cloud, mind.

(Note the wordplay here, evident throughout her poetry.)

Writing poems by hand and putting down ideas on scraps of paper or napkins between changing diapers and all the labor-intensive work that goes with raising children, she is a very sympathetic character, a teacher, translator, essayist and critic. Her poetry shows formal dexterity, imagination, and a delightful spirit.

Here is a beautiful sample of her more formal poetry and her depth of understanding:

Among Women

What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
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.
Women wander
As best they can.

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