The acclaimed poet, just before her stroke, on oil, the oral supremacy of poetry, and (what else?) the end of the world.


It is no surprise that Marie Ponsot’s latest poetry collection, Easy, should feature a poem titled “Language Acquisition.” Ponsot’s engagement with sound, as both a poet and a mother, is insistent; she seeks poems, she says, that use “whatever we can find in our language to catch the world and offer it to each other.” How ironic, then, that mere months after the book was published, Ponsot suffered a stroke, from which she is now recovering, that partially impaired her speech and memory. For the woman who wrote “The delicious tongue we speak with speaks us,” the resulting loss of language and syntax must have been terrifyingly dislocating. Yet she has managed to find humor in it: laughingly observing, in a subsequent interview with the _New York Times_, that some people have mistaken her newfound confusion of gendered pronouns for sociopolitical commentary.

Laughing at mortality, Marie Ponsot’s accomplishments are legion; among her many fellowships and prizes is a National Book Critics Circle Award for her 1998 collection, The Bird Catcher, and her recent election to the Academy of American Poets. She is also a translator and a beloved teacher. A professor of English at Queens college until 1991—during which time she co-authored with Rosemary Deen two books on writing fundamentals, Beat Not the Poor Desk and The Common Sense—she has since taught creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, and the 92nd Street Y, among other institutions. And lest we forget triumphs closer to home, Ponsot will remind us of her seven children, sixteen grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

All of these strengths and influences are on display in Ponsot’s work, but again and again she draws us into a poem with that laugh and her faith in the simple, almost quotidian image. She opens Easy with a poem dedicated to Deen, “Alhambra in New York,” and in the first few lines we are firmly placed in the familiar: “From the kitchen corner comes / the low electric hum / of the five-petaled fan.” Yet the fan is “five-petaled,” inserting a pastoral element into the scene, and the focus on the sound it makes, along with the near-rhyme of “hum” and “come,” alerts us to the phonic resonances in the lines, resonances Ponsot believes are vital to our understanding of language and, in turn, our experience of the world. Thus, our arrival, a mere nine brief lines later, at a “moonstruck” view “off the long pool / at Alhambra” is a flowering of that kitchen corner that feels inevitable somehow, as does the conclusion within the poem’s final line, “where we are, as we know.”

This theme of knowing where we are, or perhaps who we are in a particular time and place, persists throughout the book and loomed large in our conversation. Ponsot writes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a hero of hers, “his now is a perpetual now,” and this sense of time—that the present moment not only captures our current selves but exists as a culmination of many experiences and the commencement of still more to come—allows her to confront subjects of hardship and loss with an eye that is at peace, if not hopeful. The final two poems in the collection, “Dancing Day” and “Dancing Day II,” do this most directly, as Ponsot imagines her many past selves all dancing together towards their inevitable end: her death. She wrote these poems for her children, she says, as a way of helping them confront the possibility of losing her.

At times she has been criticized for this seeming sugar-coating of pain, but Ponsot knows that the recording of loss does not preclude beauty, as she writes in “TV, Evening News”:

The tank takes the house wall.
The house genuflects. The tank proceeds.
The house kneels. The roof dives.
The woman howls. Dust rises.

In giving us the metaphor of prayer in the image of dust rising from a house being demolished by the army in Afghanistan, Ponsot humanizes the loss—a particular woman’s home is destroyed—while also providing some comfort, slim but there, in the fact that the experience is communal, shared by all of us who have ever howled or prayed, as it is shared by Ponsot, herself, watching the evening news.

I interviewed her by phone just two weeks before her stroke.

—Anna Ross for Guernica

Guernica: Do you see poetry as a way of trying harder?

Marie Ponsot: I see poetry as a lot of different things. One of them is simple, idiot, pure pleasure. But there is a very serious reason for poetry: it takes us back to our most primitive language cells. Poetry comes first, historically. It’s really primitive. Ten thousand years before you have prose, you have poems, you know. So poetry is a chance to discover something that might be true and to offer it, to make it public and put it there. It’s a place to go look for ways toward truth. By truth, I mean a correspondence in what we perceive with our bodies and what we think in our heads, and when those start to match, you’ve got something that I like to think of as truth.

Guernica: One thing I notice throughout your new collection [Easy] is a continual theme of change. Do you feel that is part of your project as a poet?

Marie Ponsot: I think it is. I think one of the functions of poetry is to use time, and one of the ways that you can use it is by snatching things out of it and holding them still for a minute, and then they go away again, you know, they change as you look at them. We have to celebrate change instead of being terrified by it, even when the change is a disaster. I’ve been looking at what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s enough to break your heart it’s so bad. Perhaps some good will come out of it; maybe it will be enough to stop us from drilling more holes in all the rest of the oceans of the world.

Guernica: That’s an optimistic hope for it.

Marie Ponsot: I’m dredging, I’m dredging, because I tell you, those pictures are terrifying.

Guernica: It’s a culmination of many warnings for many years.

Marie Ponsot: Many warnings, many crimes, and here we are, criminals, up to the elbows in blood and gore and mess and everything. You have to, you have to try harder, I guess. I don’t know what we have to do, dammit. Do you find that you write more seriously now that you have children?

They think they can just look it up. You can Google it. Which, thank God, is true, but it’s nicer to have it both on the Google and in your brain, where it can cook a little.

Guernica: I’m glad that you asked that because that’s something else I wanted to talk to you about. Yes, of course I do, because everything seems much more vital now.

Marie Ponsot: I know that happened to me in a very spectacular way, and I just hope it happens to a lot of us.

Guernica: Everything is more vital, including the time, of which I have so little, in order to write. So when I actually can sit and put a couple of words down, it’s an important project. Of course, you’re a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother—congratulations, by the way, on that achievement—and also a veteran teacher, a vocation that shares some traits with motherhood, and there are so many wonderful poems here about children becoming aware. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Language Acquisition.”

Marie Ponsot: Oh good, thank you. My editor likes that one too: she has children.

Guernica: The idea of the child becoming a person once she begins to speak, that this awareness of language is just so important to us—could you talk about how motherhood is important to your writing process? Do you feel that you’d be writing differently, perhaps, if you were not a mother?

Marie Ponsot: Well I think, for myself, motherhood was essential because I was extremely selfish and egotistical and unaware of the deep reality of everybody else in the world until I had a baby. Suddenly, I realized that we all belong together and that we’ve got to fight to make that real and to carry it out in our lives. I think the great thing that motherhood gives you is a no longer relative kind of love: you really love your children, period, if you’re lucky. You just love them, that’s all. You don’t evaluate them, you don’t even care whether they love you or not—even though that can be a great joy. But you’re not doing it because you want to please them; you’re doing it because you love them, and that’s not the same thing. It roots you in the world in a very profound way, I think, in a very satisfying way. And it enables you to carry on well past the first, second, and third stages of exhaustion.

Guernica: One of the biggest joys of motherhood to me—and, as a writer, I suppose I was especially attuned to this—was listening to my daughter learn to speak.

Marie Ponsot: Ah, ah, the most ravishing thing in the world. Even at age three, it’s still going on, right?

Guernica: Yes. And it brought true so much of what you said earlier about poetry coming first and sound coming first.

Marie Ponsot: Yes it does, it does, it does, it does, and it was my babies who taught me that. My first baby was my girl—I had one girl and six boys. [One day] I walked into her bedroom in the morning and I realized that that little noise that she was making in the morning was the shape of that sentence that I always said to her. We were speaking French at that point because my ex-husband had no English, and I was going into the room and I was saying “Òu elle est, Monique,” and there she was saying “dah-dah-dah-dah-dah.” She’d been doing it for days, and I hadn’t recognized it. I was so ashamed of myself, I didn’t know what to do. It was a great moment of celebration, because I realized that the shape of a sentence is a music that she was reproducing. Like everyone who is still living in the purely oral tradition, she had no idea that a sentence was composed of different words; it was all one little tune. She was babbling out her little tune to me. Oh God, it was so thrilling. It was one of the great days of my life.

Your brain will get bored and give you a noun to go with it.

Guernica: It makes everything that you know as a poet true again. That sound is vital to language. When you see it forming in a brain that way you think, “Yes, I’m doing the right thing.”

Marie Ponsot: Yes, yes. It makes the person, and the person makes it. It’s that reciprocal intimacy.

Guernica: One of my favorite memories of my daughter first learning to speak happened when we were driving in the car: she was sitting in back eating an apple and saying “apple, apple, apple.” Then she paused for a moment, and she said “happy, happy, happy apple, happy apple.” She was hearing rhyme for the first time—it was such a wonderful moment.

Marie Ponsot: Wow, that’s perfect. You got it.

Guernica: All these things that I’d been saying to my students about how rhyme is so important to us on a visceral level, that sound catches us even before meaning catches us, became true in that moment to me.

Marie Ponsot: That’s exactly right. At the stage of babbling, everyone is a poet. In those first three months of life, everyone says, “ah-bah bah bah bah bah bah bah bah” or whatever consonants they’ve tapped out in their little brains. Wow, “happy apple”—you lucked out, girl.

Guernica: Well, I don’t know if I can really take credit.

Marie Ponsot: That’s why I said luck because I mean it, it’s all luck.

Guernica: So, do you still try and write with that in mind?

Marie Ponsot: Absolutely, it’s become vastly more important to me to want to address more than one level of reader or listener. I want to find poems that other people are writing that speak to me not as a somebody who has read Derrida, which we all have done, God pity us [laughter], but as someone who is ready to receive the verbal world—whatever we can find in our language to catch the world and offer it to each other, share it around, you know?

Guernica: Speaking of that, I also notice quite a bit of sound play in these poems.

Marie Ponsot: Oh, well, I’m a sucker for sound play, you know. I spent years trying to rewrite things and then I would look back at it and find that some of the assonance and some of the things I was doing with the vowel sounds was excessive. I used to have to say “Come on now, take the hum out of it.” It’d have that hum to it, you know, which I just loved, oh God. And you’d have to exchange that for something more definable, something more awake. I remember that great distinction that Northrop Frye makes. I’m not going to offer it to you in his fancy way because I don’t remember it, but he says that one classification of all poetry would be to say that many poems are riddles, and many poems are charms. And the riddles are the most reasonable, what Emerson called the meter making argument is at play: it’s an argument, you could outline it. And the charm ones are the ones that simulate the border between sleep and waking, and they lull you to sleep. I think that was a useful distinction for me, when thinking about the rewriting I was doing, I could push it in either direction. Did I want to? Or was I trying to steer a middle course. Between riddle and charm, there must be a little space. I think that what I want is not an excess of both or either.

Guernica: I have poem open in front of me, “Skeptic”…

Marie Ponsot: With two voices…

Guernica: Right, I see how you use assonance and consonance in here and then you interrupt it. You say, “Language thinks us. Myth or mouth / we migrants are its mystery.” There is so much “m” here—I hear the hum.

Marie Ponsot: That is exactly what I meant.

Guernica: But then you interrupted it: “It’s our tension floats those halcyons / we want to say are safe.” So you give us a little hum and then you take it away, make us think.

Marie Ponsot: I don’t want that hum to be abandoned either. I don’t like people who want poetry to be simply dry and reasonable and correct and giving right answers to everything. I want poetry to let language do the forward-looking kind of making that language likes to do. You know making stuff up, proposing the far end of imagination somewhere out there. I think that poetry, as a whole, is a prime instrument of intellectual discovery for people, and that imagined reach out there is part of the work of poetry. I’ve been thinking about the oral tradition and the move to the written tradition in the seventh century BC, and all that stuff. I did a lecture last week on Hesiod at the New School to try to explain some of it, and I got all tied up in that mysterious world and our oral tradition becoming the written tradition. Homer presents the novel tradition of the world we seem to think of as what the Greek world was composed of, and we know that they had slaves, these elite people. But we seem to forget about the people in the middle, who are Hesiod’s audience—the farmers, the workers. They weren’t middle class—they didn’t have a middle class—but people who were not princes of the realm or senators.

The reason I [am] telling you about that is, you know how if you are a good girl and keep trying to think straight, once in every two years you get an idea? The idea I got, suddenly, was an image of the world. And I have always thought of the oral tradition as receding as the written tradition emerged and went through its stages from print to tweet—all of those big events that make language seem to be incarcerated in that world. I suddenly realized that most people—at all times in the world—most people live inside the oral tradition. Not only do people not know how to read and write in many places that we can easily find on our maps, but in our own lives, a great deal of our time is spent living inside the oral tradition, and it is alive and well among us even if we don’t pay too much attention to it. I don’t know why that seemed so shocking to me. I had never thought about the fact that Homer and Hesiod are alive and well out there because of the oral tradition. We need to treat it very thoughtfully and respectfully when we make our poems. We have to want them to sound right.

I have an interesting class at the 92nd Street Y, which is working on getting a manuscript into shape and sending it out. It’s a wonderful class—a slave labor class. I make everyone work very hard, and I work my tail off. What we do is take each other’s manuscripts into our heads, and hold them there, and shake [them] around, and if you do that for ten people you have a head full of poems. I made them memorize poems—I just got dictatorial. I realized they don’t do that anymore, just for fun or by accident, and I also realized that part of the devaluing of meter comes from the fact that no one is bothering to put these things in their head. They think they can just look it up. You can Google it. Which, thank God, is true, but it’s nicer to have it both on the Google and in your brain, where it can cook a little. I’m still laughing at myself, because I didn’t plan it ahead of time, it occurred to me on the spot and I got the urge, and I made them sit there and memorize poems. Short ones, Frost, you know “Fire and Ice.” I chose it because the meter was intricate and the lineation is very brilliant and successful in every possible way—the way the lines break and force the rhetoric—it’s just gorgeous. There you are, that’s one thing I suddenly discovered I believe in: making everybody memorize a lot of poems!

Guernica: I was at Mt. Holyoke when Joseph Brodsky was there, and he taught a poetry class in which he required a memorization of at least two hundred lines of poetry. Someone asked him once why it was a requirement, and he said “Because you never know when the world will end, and you better have your books with you when it does.”

Marie Ponsot: There you are, there you are. I think that’s brilliant. I think the Russians are a prime example, the idea that you should have a head full of poems is absolutely true, why not?

Guernica: So do you find you use memorization in your own writing process at all? I find that because I don’t have a whole lot of time to sit down and write, I often have something in my head that I am working on, and the parts that I can’t remember are the ones that aren’t working in the poem.

Marie Ponsot: They aren’t working hard enough, that’s exactly right. That review—that mental view of one’s own stuff—I think that is a very sound thing to do. I have a little parenthesis directed at you, as the mother of lively persons, and having a busy life and doing a lot of stuff besides. You have to write for ten minutes every day.

Guernica: Okay, I’ll try and do that. I’ll take that on board.

Marie Ponsot: I made that rule for myself when I was deep in the morass of never having any time at all, just brrrrr, you know, the day was over, and I was exhausted. I realized it was two or three weeks since I had picked up a pen or a pencil and wrote something for myself because I was doing translations for money, and I discovered that if you say to yourself you’re not allowed to go to sleep for ten minutes, you may do nine and three-quarters and then just drop off to sleep, but you may get a second wind and you may discover that you have something to say and you’ve kept that little door in your pre-conscious language life open. There’s a little momentum there when you sit down to write, and I recommend it from the depths of a long experience.

Guernica: And write anything?

Marie Ponsot: Doesn’t matter. Even if you just write “the, the, the.” Your brain will get bored and give you a noun to go with it. And there are days when, you know, you’re pushing your cart around the supermarket with the kid in it, and something comes to your head that you can hold onto. You immortalize the day for yourself in a way—you make it permanent to give it some kind of shape. Even if you just write a few words in that ten minutes. And sometimes it turns into something much longer. And sometimes it acts as a memento. If you go back—if you have, as I do, a kind of a basket that I throw written-on paper into and don’t empty it out too often—then the paper, the dumb thing that you wrote that’s not very long, will bring a whole day back into your mind in a fresh kind of way, so it’s not entirely evaporated out of your language life.

Guernica: I love hearing you say that because I felt like that was happening over and over again in this book actually—that there were moments coming out of the past and becoming new again. I love the Hopkins poem you have, “Why vow,”—“Self (daft or not) lives out its vow: / his now is a perpetual now.” So is that how you see writing and poetry—this perpetual now?

Marie Ponsot: It’s a sense I have of Hopkins—his work is extremely important, I think, to the development of English poetry. Gave it a kick in the ass just when it needed it. It prevented the destruction of the sense of lyric in English poetry. Poetry was getting very pedestrian, and then it was getting political, and then it was getting “I must experiment,” and the power of the lyric voice, which seems to me to come out of the most primitive part of our language experience, was getting lost, and there it is—he just revived the whole thing.

Guernica: And made it “now” again? Because what he writes about is at once so intangibly spiritual and at once so actual and earthbound. The “toil and soil” of “God’s Grandeur.”

Marie Ponsot: It just cheers me up to think of his work, you know—he just did it, is all. Whatever it took he just managed to get it in somehow.

Guernica: He wrote his ten minutes a day.

Marie Ponsot: I went up yesterday to the Botanical Gardens where The Poetry Society of America was celebrating “Poem in Your Pocket Day,” and “Glory be to God for Dappled Things” was in my pocket. It felt really good, because it was that kind of a day—a really beautiful spring day, and the botanical gardens have reproduced Emily Dickinson’s home garden; all the plants in it are lined up inside the Botanical Gardens. It was a lot of fun.

I want violently to say that poems are not about their subjects.

Guernica: It’s funny that you bring up Dickinson, because when you were saying what you said about Hopkins reinvigorating English language poetry, I was thinking that Dickinson is the other person who did that.

Marie Ponsot: Yes, exactly, the lyric voice. “Here it is guys, out of my way.”

Guernica: The way she uses sound is always so impressive to me—that she can get those forms in there. You have some political statements in this book, I think. When I read your poems the biggest political statement I get from them is a celebration of real life, of not needing to look beyond one’s garden and one’s day to write a poem.

Marie Ponsot: Right.

Guernica: But then you also have the really wrenching poem about Afghanistan—about watching a house there being demolished by U.S. (I’m assuming) soldiers.

Marie Ponsot: My feeling about writing the political poems about the things that are tearing us up, is that one to a book is plenty. I can’t do more than that, and I have to find one that I can stand behind, a political opinion that I can stand behind. I’m not going to tell you that I hate Israelis and love Palestinians or love Israelis and hate Palestinians—I’m not going to do that. Not going to even imply it. I’m going to find something that I can say: this is what happens, what do you think?

Guernica: Well, I think one of the reasons that poem succeeds is that you provide the context—you’re watching it [the destruction of the house] on the evening news on CNN, and so we know that there’s an international audience for what’s going on, but what’s happening is the destruction of a home and a woman watching the destruction of her home and that seems to ring true with the rest of what you’re writing about in the book. It doesn’t stand out as “this is the political poem of the book,” because so much of what you write about in the rest of the book is the home, the child, the sense of place and self.

Marie Ponsot: The fact is that people who say everything is political are right. But of course, it’s also a perfectly meaningless statement. You know, the political is whatever we choose to make it, whatever we stand together and say as a gang. I guess I want violently to say that poems are not about their subjects; what matters is not the subject, it is what the poet is able to do with it in language, and I think in that sense all poems are political. Even the ones about the most domestic interior are not about a domestic interior, but they’re about the world that is lived by fifty percent of humanity.

Guernica: Sure, and so in that way they stand for a group. I wanted to end by talking to you about the last couple of poems in the book, “Dancing Day” and “Dancing Day II.” Perhaps they’re a little bit about what you’re talking about here, that the importance is the poem and more than the subject. I’m not sure what you think about that?

Marie Ponsot: That’s interesting. That’s very interesting.

Guernica: I can see why they end the book, because they can be read as a looking forward to an ending. Are you, in those poems, in any way attempting to elegize your own work, or yourself, or your life?

Marie Ponsot: My life really. I wrote those poems with a double intention. I saw how people I know have over the years been tremendously affected by the death of their parents—they could be twenty, forty, or sixty, it doesn’t matter. When the mother and the father die out of your life something weird happens to your psyche. You know, it’s a tough time.

Guernica: You “feel less lucky” [from the poem “Orphaned Old” in Easy].

Marie Ponsot: Yes, thank you! And here I am with these wonderful children with whom I am fairly close I must say, and I love them with all of my heart and love them regardless, you know, and I thought, “what could I possibly say that could help them acclimatize themselves to the fact that I’m going to die?” You know, I mean there’s no question about it, give me ten maybe, and it would be a miracle. So I wanted to say something about what it felt like to be the person who had death as that immediate a prospect. And so that’s what they’re about.

I also wanted to sort of talk about this phenomenon of the many selves that I was experiencing. Because I really found that people from my long ago past were appearing in my thoughts and not only that, but the person that I was then was coming back to me in a way. It was quite weird and pretty consistent. From the time I turned eighty, it began to happen and kept happening, and I thought, “oh boy, they’re not really gone,” even though I haven’t thought of them in fifty years. So I wanted to put that in as well, and I wanted to give my children a sense that a lot of the approached death is how you’ve lived; you just go on doing it until everything accumulates around you, and you walk out.

Editors Recommend:

The Consequences: Poet Robert Hass talks contemporary politics, literacy in the nineteenth century, and Barry Bonds.

Houses at Night: Rock star poet John Ashbery on pop art, manifestos, and feeling like a foreigner in America.

To contact Guernica or Marie Ponsot, please write here.

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2 Comments on “Between Riddle and Charm

  1. Marie Ponsot is a national treasure and simply human. I love finding the fine balance of a riddle and charm in a poem, hers, mine, anyone’s. Thanks for the excellent interview. JP

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