Marie Ponsot’s (April 6, 1921 – July 5, 2019) use of her personal experiences never degenerates into the maudlin, nor does she invoke the circumstances of her life simply for dramatic effect. In Strange Good Fortune: Essays on Contemporary Poets (2000), poet David Wojahn suggests that such writing is misleading and dishonest, warning against writing talk-show poetry that aches for attention and headlines:
For a poem of invective to work as it should, a writer must in most cases be especially careful to counterbalance the development of his/her argument with structural or formal devices which sharpen and underscore the writer’s conviction and rage.
The strength of Ponsot’s work is in how carefully she weaves her poems, using formal structural and sonic devices to sustain her argument. For example, when Ponsot speaks with anger about her divorce, her poems use traditional forms and fixed rhyme schemes to give the impression of a struggle between restraint and strong emotion. The emotion never sweeps away the poem, nor does the structure ever seem merely incidental or decorative. Both form and sense work together to create an organic whole.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti published True Minds, Ponsot’s first collection, just after he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956). Based on Ferlinghetti’s choice, the public expected that Ponsot’s work would follow in Ginsberg’s Beat style and therefore greeted Ponsot’s measured, formal verses with a profound silence. Although she continued to publish individual poems in magazines and journals, twenty-five years would pass before the publication of her second book.
A slim collection, True Minds presents a metaphysical meditation within the context of her life experiences. The sonnet form underscores the spiritual stance that characterizes much of Ponsot’s work. “Espousal” echoes the vibrance of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ecstatic poems. This sonnet uses four stanzas of three lines, employing an abc rhyme scheme in each stanza. The sonnet ends with a couplet using bc. This interlocking echoes the images, which also repeat, describing a link between the spiritual and physical worlds:
And the cut-out sun-circle plunges, down it dives;
And fire blazes at the earth’s jewel-runneled core.
Ponsot takes liberties with the basic requirements of the form—the five-stress line with its regular rhyme scheme. The resulting poem celebrates the freshness of love as well as its connection to the natural world. This is a poem of young love that seems indestructible.
“The Given Grave Grown Green,” a poem of foreboding, questions the assumption that love can endure, as if the poet foresees her future divorce. This is a poem of change. The poet experiences change occurring all around her. Wondering where she finds herself in the midst of such change, addressing the person who has been the agent of such turmoil, she finally says:
You can watch from your closed window
How true false love has grown.
These lines mirror the contradiction inherent in the title. A grave is green only because of growth above it, not life within it. Likewise, what is true about love in this poem is that the love has become false.
Admit Impediment Ponsot’s second collection, Admit Impediment, provides a fuller exploration of the themes found in True Minds. Both collections take their titles from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, which begins, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. . . .” Divided into four sections, the second collection opens with “For a Divorce,” one of the longer poems gathered here. It is a dark poem, whose irregular stanzaic patterns lead the reader through the emotional intricacies that attend a divorce. This poem catalogs the pain of the divorce and the specific areas of brokenness, recalling the various images of the marriage itself. The short, strong lines emphasize the full-stop of the relationship, the sounds within the lines almost jarring at times. The poet concludes:
Deaths except for amoeba articulate
life into lives, separate, named, new.
Not all sworn faith dies. Ours did.
This is an angry poem whose emotion is carefully controlled for vivid effect. While the poet attempts to avoid blame (the lines previously quoted are as close as she comes to specific details about the cause of the break), she achieves a level of clarity for the reader’s consideration by beginning her poem with nearly all of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Although she does not quote Shakespeare’s final two lines, their sense is implied throughout this collection:
If this be error, and upon me prov’d
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
The Green Dark
Ponsot’s third collection, The Green Dark, weaves mythic elements into the fabric of her poems, along with her accustomed biographical references, resulting in poems in which dream and reality share space. “Take Time, Take Place” is a long meditation in several parts. In part 1, the poet longs for the fantasy of passionate love but realizes that such love is inaccessible, saying, “Sleep take it. Awake I like a drier wine.” Part 2 takes a different turn. Even the use of language becomes more grounded in day-to-day expression.
The poems in parts 1 and 2 use irregular line lengths and slant rhymes, which give the poem an exploratory, testing sense of experience, as if the poet would invite the reader on a journey whose end is uncertain. Part 3, however, is quite different. Comprising seven sonnets and ending with a five-line stanza, this section questions the assumptions of the first two parts. Beginning with “Fantasies dampen the pang of cherishing/ goods and chances lost or left behind,” these poems challenge the easy redemption that fantasy alone can bring.
Each sonnet ends with a line that is repeated as the first line of the next sonnet, albeit sometimes slightly altered. The poet searches for signs, for the “hard sun of memory,” which would enable her to enter the world of her fancy, but then realizes:
Such grace. It names the saving world I might seize
but am too locked in time to see: unless
we are what our imagination frees.
What the imagination frees is the human capacity to feel joy, even after a great pain has occurred. The bird that has flown throughout this poem becomes the unifying symbol of “thick experience.” The poems that Ponsot crafts with such precision emphasize the idea that, as a poet, she is free to construct a world that encourages her selfhood and to leave any world that denies her the right to grow.
The Bird Catcher
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Bird Catcher continues to probe Ponsot’s fascination with poetic forms, using them to shape the expression of the emotive thrust in each poem. Likewise, the poet reviews the concerns that preoccupied her earlier work. Crafted in four sections, the book begins with “To the Muse of Doorways Edges Verges,” which sets the creative tone. The “gentle visitor” in the doorway is someone whose visits are “irregular,” as the poet makes her welcome. These visits, however, contain a nervy edge of warning:
She smiles. She speaks up, some.
Each word ravishes,
bright with the sciences
she practices in the music business.
“One day, when you’re not dumb,
you must come
to my place,” she says,
Twenty-five years elapsed between the publication of Ponsot’s first and second books; meanwhile, she experienced marriage, the birth of her children, and her subsequent divorce. Tillie Olsen’s Silences (1978) elaborates on the lives of female writers who fall silent for significant periods of their career, as did Ponsot. It would perhaps be accurate to read “dumb” as “mute,” not as a reference to intelligence. The poet shows herself at the edge of an awakening, a rebirth into the world of her own words. This is the “place” to which the muse calls her.
The first section, “ForMy Old Self,” contains poems that focus on her life as a wife and mother. The poet’s use of forms becomes, at times, playful, as if concealing a more serious tone that is pervasive. “Trois Petits Tours et Puis . . .” speaks of conflicting ways in which the husband and wife interpret the world. Each seems unable to recognize the gift that is present in the spouse, until, finally, the inevitable break occurs. The sonnet uses a varied rhyme scheme and an irregular stanzaic pattern. The first stanza contains five lines, the second, seven, and the third, two. The final stanza summarizes the outcome:
His map omits her. His snapshots go to friends.
A fresh music fills her house, a fresh air.
For both, the end of this relationship is the beginning of another life. In each poem in which Ponsot discusses the breakdown of her marriage, she avoids a self-pitying stance that could undermine the vitality of her work. Instead, the poet affirms her own ability to continue—not merely to endure, but to flourish.
In the second section, “Separate, in the Swim,” the poem “The Border” begins with a young girl’s idealized vision of what marriage is. A flower girl for Dorothea’s wedding, the girl practices walking so that she can gracefully present herself holding the flowers. Her grandmother tells her that she should not worry, as everyone will be looking at the bride. She then starts to blow bubbles, allowing them to float over the pansies into the bridal-wreath bush before they vanish. Her understanding is at once naïve and chilling:
Getting married is like that.
Getting married is not like that.
The poem is both an affirmation and a warning, as if the poet were speaking to herself as a young, newly married woman.
Other sections explore mythology, women who find themselves in situations that are conflicting, almost dream states. In “Persephone, Packing,” the poet wonders whether the duality of Persephone’s life—and by extension the poet’s life—is actually a dream. She ponders whether life above or below is real. Again, the poet examines the institution of marriage, especially in Persephone’s case, in which she has been taken against her will. How much of a woman’s will must be sacrificed for the sake of the union is a question that Ponsot asks in her poetry, with no easy answers.
The final poem, “Even,” uses jagged lines and enjambment to follow the story of Adam and Eve, as Eve finally comes to understand her position in the world. The poem refers to Noah and his wife, suddenly freed from danger. The poet then draws a parallel between modern women, including herself, and the need for a new way of being.
Springing culls selected work from Ponsot’s previous collections and includes new poems and uncollected work from Ponsot’s early career. The new work, which opens the text, is similar to that found in The Bird Catcher, in its dry wit, pared-down lines, and playful use of traditional forms, rhyme, and meter. These are intellectually savvy poems, philosophical in their intent but grounded in earthly realities; gardens and gardening, for example, are Ponost’s most prevalent metaphors. “Pathetic Fallacies Are Bad Science But” suggests a desire to find human equivalency in nature, despite understanding, intellectually, the inevitable distance between the human world and the natural world. Ponsot writes, “I read this drenched in bird-panic,/ its spine-fusing loss all song, all loss; that loss mine.” This tug-of-war between a desire for comfort in natural cycles and a reluctance to speak for the natural world pervades Ponsot’s work, particularly her later poems. This tension gives the poems their energy. These are poems whose speakers are conscious of aging and time passing, and yet they refuse to give in to despair. With poems such as “Old Jokes Appreciate” and “What Would You Like to Be When You Grow Up,” one gets the sense Ponsot is grappling with her increasing age with humor. In “Antepenultimate,” the speaker positions herself as a poetic alternative to overly rational scientific time keeping: “He earns his living learning/ history & likelihood/ by reading trees, sliced dead ones./ Me too but/ with live ones.” Again, the poems engage with difficult truths but with a decidedly Dickinsonian “slant.” Formally speaking, the poems are also reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s sometimes elliptical lines and imagined dialogues, but Ponsot never seems old-fashioned. In the section “Uncollected Poems, 1946-1971,” the poet’s progression from a denser, iambic line and a more overtly narrative sensibility to quick, honed lyrics is evident. The humor, too, in “Private and Profane” (1950) is broader, as is the rhyme (“From loss of the old and lack of the new/ From failure to make the right thing do/ Save us, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu”) than the last poem in the section, “Out of the North: Two Views.” In this poem, Ponsot begins to display two of the hallmark characteristics of her later work, indented stanzas and quotations: “I am a giant really and you therefore/ should love me since you/ claim you are a falcon, believe me,/ you are a giant, too.” Here Ponsot creates a single landscape but from two views, that of the more powerful hawk and that of the lesser falcon. She writes from an animal’s perspective but, in this earlier poem, with less anxiety.
Nonfiction: Beat Not the Poor Desk, 1982 (with Rosemary Deen); The Common Sense: What to Write, How to Write It, and Why, 1985 (with Deen).
Translations: Cinderella, and Other Stories of Charles Perrault, 1957; Fables of La Fontaine, 1957; The Fairy Tale Book, 1958; My First Picture Encyclopedia, 1959; Old One Toe, 1959; Once Upon a Time Stories, 1959; Mick and the AP-105, 1961; Russian Fairy Tales, 1961; Tales of India, 1961; Bemba, 1962; Pour toi, 1966; Chinese Fairy Tales, 1973; Golden Book of Fairy Tales, 1999; Love and Folly: Selected Fables and Tales of La Fontaine, 2001; The Snow Queen, and Other Tales, 2001.
Burt, Stephen. “The Wonder Years.” Review of Easy. The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 2009, p. 6L.
Gilbert, Sandra M. “The Last Wilderness of the Wild Old: On Marie Ponsot’s The Bird Catcher and Rajzel Zychlinsky’s God Hid His Face.” In On Burning Ground: Thirty Years of Thinking About Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
Hacht, Anne Marie, and David Kelly, eds. Poetry for Students. Vol. 24. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2006.
Krivak, Andrew. “The Language of Redemption.” Commonweal 130, no. 9 (May, 2003): 12-16.
Parini, Jay, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Seaman, Donna. Review of The Bird Catcher. Booklist 94, no. 11 (February 1, 1998): 894.
Smith, Dinitia. “Recognition at Last for Poet of Elegant Complexity.” Review of The Bird Catcher. The New York Times, April 13, 1999, p. E1.
Willis, Mary-Sherman. “Diving into It.” Review of The Bird Catcher. Poet Lore 94, no. 4 (Winter, 2000).