Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Tribute to Marie Ponsot

I took a year long manuscript course with Marie at 92Y last year. In class she would ask us to describe a workshopped poem instead of judging it immediately, and we discovered that description is also a form of judgment, but keener-eyed. Last Thursday, the New School Writing program, where Marie teaches, and Pen American Center sponsored an evening's tribute to her. It also launched her new book, with the wonderful title, Easy.

The large Tishman auditorium was less than half filled. I felt a little sad about that. She has won all kinds of awards but I've always felt that she is in danger of being under-appreciated. The story most often told of her life is that of a poet who published a first book when young and then her second thirty years later. In that interval of apparent silence, she was raising seven children and spending a few minutes each day writing. The moral for young poets, which a number of readers that night rehearsed, is not to rush into publication. It is a noble lesson, but not a glamorous one. Marie attracts respect but not devotion. I don't think it bothers her.

The poems I remember from Springing: The Bird Catcher, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, are intricate timepieces. They exude a Swiss luxury. These kinds of poems reappear in Easy, poems like "Walking Home from the Museum," an inverted sonnet, and "Thank Gerard," a prayer of thanksgiving. But there are many more poems that are relaxed, carefree and even mischievous. The diction in them is simple. The rhyme scheme, if they have one, is playful. They are spoken in the voice of a cocky Head Turkey, a self-effacing middle sister of Peter Rabbit or one Grimm Brother to the Other.  Marie read a blues poem that she said she would not have put in a collection earlier because she would have thought it lacked gravitas. It was liberating to see a poet breaking free of poetic decorum.

The new poems are not just fun, but their freedom captures, paradoxically, something of the world's ineffability. One of the strongest poems in this collection is "This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo." It is a response to Blake who proclaims in the poem's epigraph, "In a time of dearth bring forth number, weight & measure." A stirring line, but Marie would have none of it. She looks to cloud, instead, for a bridge, for "This dawns on me: no cloud is measurable."

The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,
its each instant of edge involving
in formal invention, always
at liberty, at it, incessantly altering.

"Each instant of edge" is very fine, the lines themselves illustrating through linked sounds what they say. The poem ends with an invocation:

Come to mind, cloud.
Come to cloud, mind.

The religious strain is strong in the new book, as in the others. It is governed by a consideration for others, and stimulated by an awareness that there is something bigger out there than us. Call it language, as Marie so often does.

2 comments:

Patricia Markert said...

Gorgeous post. I am sorry I didn't know about her reading. She is under-appreciated, a sort of unknown American Treasure. I saw her interviewed last night on Bill Moyers Journal in celebration of Poets House re-opening, and she seems younger every time I see her. I can't wait to read her new book.

Jee Leong Koh said...

She is ageless.