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Magnanimous, Magnificent: A Marie Ponsot Tribute, with remarks by Sapphire

November 17, 2009

Last Thursday evening, Nov 12th, in beautiful Tishman Auditorium at The New School, several hundred people gathered to celebrate Marie Ponsot on the occasion of the publication of her new collection, Easy (Alfred A. Knopf).

On Thursday evening, Nov 12th, in beautiful Tishman Auditorium at The New School, several hundred people gathered to celebrate Marie Ponsot on the occasion of the publication of her new collection, Easy (Alfred A. Knopf).

Jackson Taylor, assistant director of the Writing Program at The New School, was the mover and shaker behind the event introducing the evening with a fulsome description of Marie's integrity and victory as an artist and her supreme contribution as a teacher.

Rosemary Deen, co-author with Marie of the classic Beat Not the Poor Desk and the dedicatee of the new collection, read Marie's "Fra Angelica Sonnet" parsing it with tremendous skill and verve in fourteen spirited points.

Two of Marie's former students, both accomplished poets, spoke. Jean Gallagher expressed how lucky she felt to have had Marie as her only teacher, and L.B. Thompson declared her "unabashed adoration."

Phillip Lopate, on the brink of publishing his At the End of the Day: Selected Poems and an Introductory Essay, read Marie's "Orphaned Old."

Deborah Garrison, Marie's editor at Knopf, spoke of the moving "I/Thou" aspect of Marie's poetry demonstrated in the poem she chose to read, "Language Acquisition."

Burn, or speak your mind. For the oak to untruss
its passion it must explode as fire or leaves.

The delicious tongue we speak with speaks us.
A liquor of sweetness where its root cleaves
ripens fluent, as it runs for the desirous
reason, the touching sense. The infant says "I"
like earthquake and wavers as place takes voice.
Earth steadies smiling around her, in reply
to her self-finding pronoun, her focal choice.
We wait: while sun sucks earth juices up from wry
root-runs tangled under dark, while the girl
no longer vegetal, steps into view:
a moving speaker, an "I" the air whirls
toward the green exuberance of "You."

Sapphire, the novelist and author of several stunning collections of poems, who is currently swept up in conversation everywhere about the new film, "Precious, Based on the novel, Push, by Sapphire," wrote a riveting essay (read by the poet and writer David Lehman) about Marie's virtues as a teacher and her continuing role as inspiration in Sapphire's life.*

Richard Howard selected "This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo" and with each word buoyed on his breath made it instantly apparent to everyone that this is one of the poet's unalloyed triumphs.

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Marie Ponsot's first book True Minds was # 5 in the City Lights Pocket Poets series, published in 1956 following Allen Ginsberg's HOWL , Kenneth Patchen's Poems of Humor and Protest, Kenneth Rexroth's Thirty Spanish Poems of Love & Exile, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pictures of the Gone World.

Lines from an early poem in that book have stayed with me, from "Analogue,"

Join me because forever perfected
Love's one moment emerges here
Forever alive. Time undermines us
But our made love stands clear.

The continuity in her work from that moment to this one is amply evident. The strength of those simple clarion words, the profundity of that clarion call, the firm sense of craft, the emphatic, unerring relationship to the English poetic tradition--all supported the happy claim made on the jacket of that debut volume, one that now seems so sweetly modest and perhaps truly partaking of a gone world.

"Marie Ponsot will certainly become known, in the years to come, as one of the most important young Catholic poets of the post-World War II period."

In a poem from Admit Impediment, Marie, writing inquiringly of the poet and person she would come to be, cued things a little more presciently, "Did she do well,/ That stern young person planning to be good,/ Sure of her dress, her footing, her right to ask?"

We assembled at the New School to nod like daffodils in unified assent.

Nobility is not a word to use without consideration. But it's one that comes to mind whenever I am in attendance in a classroom with Marie. Nobility of desire and vision, nobility of purpose, nobility of resolve--nobility and joy. Her love for the art of poetry is absolute, her ability to inspire a notable constant in our world.

I was honored to publish Marie's second book, Admit Impedimentin 1981, a great present to me from the poet Marilyn Hacker who delivered it to my office at Knopf in an interoffice envelope I still picture with delight thirty years later. I was elated when Harry Ford, my successor at Knopf, felt as passionately about her work as I did, publishing The Green Dark and The Bird Catcher with great style. And I am touched and gratified by the deep bond Marie and her current editor Deborah Garrison have forged and the beautiful books they have produced together. I'll close with the poem I read that evening, and please look for Rosemary Deen's and Sapphire's contributions just after the poem.


Low above the moss
a sprig of scarlet berries
soon eaten or blackened
tells time.
Go to a wedding
as to a funeral:
bury the loss.

Go to a funeral
as to a wedding
marry the loss.

Go to a coming
as to a going:
unhurrying.Time is winter-green.
Seeds keep time.
Time, so kept, carries us
across to no-time where
no time is lost.

* * *


by Sapphire

What I learned from Marie Ponsot and her work is part of the reason I'm still standing as an artist. She taught me that there is light in lived life, that not publishing did not equal literary death (but that not practicing one's art just might). And that there is no reason for not practicing, after all anyone, even a mother of seven, can find fifteen minutes a day to write. And fifteen minutes a day over, oh say, five, ten, twenty years might just add up to something!

She showed me that there is no real silence except giving up, and that what seems like years of silence to the rest of the world, could in fact be an accumulation of light that will move you forward to the next poem, book of poetry, project, or performance.

She taught me one need not fear that place she has come to with so much grace as well as accomplishment, that:

Age is not
All dry rot
It's never too late
sweet is your real estate.

--From "Pourriture Noble"
in The Bird Catcher

In Beat Not the Poor Desk she challenged the idea that it was the children we taught who were deficient. She demanded that we look at our own behavior and methodologies—that how we thought and how we taught might be what needed adjusting.

I consider Marie Ponsot an artist extraordinaire, an amazing teacher and mentor; and I also consider her a comrade in arms. If there has ever been a voice against disappearing and dying too soon it is hers. She asks in "Sois Sage O Ma Douleur":

How can we keep our hot hatred of power from chilling to impotence…burst out of that frame in our daughters' names? From Admit Impediment

In "Ghostwriter" Ponsot admonishes a female comrade who has put down her arms:

Irene on my list of answers to despair
I star your name

But now I come to complain.
Lately you ghostwrite.
Able, serviceable conscript
Papers on liverfluke or cattlebone,
Speeches on green research phrased
For a larynx not you own
Replace in your portfolio the work
I think you were born to. From Admit Impediment

I heard the warning in those words and saw the promise too. I then let her words do what they have done for so many others; I let her words change my life.

* * *

Poems by Marie Ponsot. Copyright2009 by Marie Ponsot. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf. All Rights Reserved.