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
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.
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...