Prose from Poetry Magazine

Introduction

On the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize Winner, Marie Ponsot.

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. Ponsot herself knew all too well the cost (“I seven months / Pregnant for the seventh time / Disappear”). The wonder is that she knew — and rendered, and rescued — the wonder (see “Out of  Water”).

Of course, a writer’s circumstances are not really germane to our appreciation of the work itself. Poems either stand on their own 
merits, or fall away with the life that made them momentarily compelling. This, too, Ponsot knows:

Under the under
of what I remember
we are both twenty
and except with each other
underemployed.

           It is summer.
           Under our butter, bread,
           summer’s hunger satisfied.

The elegiac exaltation of  the passing instant: this is all that poetry can do, finally. It is not enough, and if  it is made to seem enough then poetry becomes an actual diminishment of the life it tries to consecrate — becomes, even, an obscenity. Once again this is no news for Ponsot. The wonderful sounds of those lines above, the sly humor of “underemployed,” the sadness veined with happiness, or happiness veined with sadness: all of this buoys the poem above its subject, which is the slow and anguishing death of an old lover.

That subject, though, has its specific and necessary gravity in Ponsot’s poems. There are no evasions in her work.

I read this drenched in bird-panic, its spine-
fusing loss all song, all loss; that loss mine
awash in unanswered unanswered song.
And I cannot claim we are not desolate.

This is as stark as Larkin, and Ponsot’s poems, with their formal precisions and terrible clarities, can sometimes put one in mind of  Larkin, though she is never above her subjects, never sneering: “We’re dear blood daughters to this every hag,” she writes near the end of her harrowing, humorous poem, “A Visit.”

She is also more of a Modernist, which is to say a Classicist who has been through hell:

From despair keep us, Aquin’s dumb son;
From despair keep us, Saint Welcome One;
From lack of despair keep us, Djuna and John Donne.

In these poems you can find Yeats’s “passionate syntax” (see the first lines of “A Visit”), or the unified sensibility that Eliot attributed to the Metaphysicals (and thereby cleverly claimed for himself). You can find something of the astringent intimacy of Marianne Moore, who once wrote, “Without / loneliness, I should be more / lonely, so I keep it.” “Maybe / it will empty me / too emptily,” answers Ponsot half-laughingly half a century later,

and keep me here
asleep, at sea
under the guilt quilt,
under the you tree.

Even the pun — you/yew — echoes back through the centuries.

But this is all just background to the inventive and idiosyncratic music that Ponsot has managed to make — is still making, in fact, in her ninety-third year. When we were deliberating this year about the Lilly Prize, a very wise man in the office right next to mine told me that he tended to judge a book by considering how it might hold up if it were the only book he had with him for a month. “With Marie Ponsot,” said Don Share, “I think I’d be just fine.” It was a useful prompt for me, better than any criticism, and is a good place to 
begin understanding the work of  Marie Ponsot, which in fact doesn’t require understanding so much as inhabiting, and perhaps not even inhabiting so much as — simply, slowly — enjoying. So if you have a month on your hands, or a day, or an hour, you would do well to spend it with this woman, this mind, this singular and — I’d stake a lot of money on this — durable music.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2013

Poet, translator, editor, and essayist Christian Wiman was raised in West Texas and earned a BA at Washington and Lee University. A former Guggenheim fellow, Wiman served as the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013. He received an honorary doctorate from North Central College.   Making use of—and at times gently...

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  1. May 15, 2013
     Thomas Osatchoff

    This search for something we can hold onto in life we evaluate poetry by. The inherent tension between the idea and tangible manifestation of that which is or seems enduring is a symptom-and-cause of Modernity--and perhaps as we inquire into how this phenomenon of experience may be transforming--also an answer to what is coming. (In life and poetry.)

  2. May 16, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    Yes, she wrote a fine example of a three-line poem, which
    may have earned her the prize all by itself. But for a
    month? I'd rather get reacquainted with Yeats, whose
    "Ribh at the Tomb of Baile and Aillinn" is the
    consummation of yew tree poems, and then if a month
    stretched into years, I'd love to spend more time alone
    with Emily Dickinson, who may be the purest of them all.

  3. May 19, 2013
     Tim McGrath

    Next year's prize should go to Bob Dylan. Not that he
    needs the money, but a poet as good as William Blake
    deserves the golden laurel.

  4. January 17, 2015
     Kathryn Ponsot Underwood

    Today, I met Ms Ponsot
    through her poetry. My
    father (deceased) Louis
    Nicholas Ponsot was born
    in St. Louis, MO. His
    Mother, Margaret Ponsot
    also lived and died in St.
    Louis. I would like to
    contact Ms. Ponsot
    because I believe we may
    be related. Can you please
    send me her address , e-
    mail address or phone
    number? If you would
    forward this message to
    Ms. Ponsot maybe she
    will contact me. Thank
    you. Kathryn Ponsot
    Underwood, Maj, USAF
    (ret). 210 695 6623
    Helotes, TX near San
    Antonio: