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About this poet

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York, on April 6, 1921. She received a BA from St. Joseph’s College for Women and an MA from Columbia University. On a trip to Paris soon after World War II, she became friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder of City Lights Books. He published Ponsot’s first poetry collection, True Minds (City Lights Pocket Bookshop) in 1956.

While in Paris, Ponsot met the painter Claude Ponsot, whom she married. Together, they had seven children, whom she raised alone after their divorce in 1970. During this time, she also translated over thirty books from French to English.

Twenty-five years after the publication of True Minds, Ponsot published her second book, Admit Impediment (Alfred A. Knopf), in 1981. Since then, she has written several books of poetry: Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016); Easy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); Springing: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002); The Bird Catcher (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and The Green Dark (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988).

On the importance of poetry, Ponsot says, “There’s a primitive need for language that works as an instrument of discovery and relief, that can make rich the cold places of our inner worlds with the memorable tunes and dreams poems hold for us.”

About her work, poet and critic Susan Stewart has said:

What she has written of her relation to the night sky—‘it becomes the infinite / air of imagination that stirs immense / among losses and leaves me less desolate’—could be claimed by her readers as a description of her own work, which pulls us always to forms of thought and attention that surprise and enlarge and cheer us.

In a New York Times review, Dinitia Smith writes, “A Marie Ponsot poem is like a little jeweled bracelet, carefully carved, with small, firm stones embedded in it. Her subjects are domestic life, marriage and sometimes swimming.”

Ponsot has taught at Beijing United University, Columbia University, New York University, the Poetry Center of the YMHA, and Queens College. Her honors include the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Shaughnessy Medal of the Modern Language Association.

Ponsot served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010 to 2014. She lives in New York City.

Selected Bibliography

Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)
Easy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)
Springing: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
The Bird Catcher (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)
The Green Dark (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988)
Admit Impediment (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981)
True Minds (City Lights Pocket Bookshop, 1957)

The Great Dead, Why Not, May Know

for Joan Paul, d. April 1978

No grief goes unrelieved;
some days, half meaning to,
I turn my undefended back
on the grey & snarling scene
of my dissociating pack
and hope.

Some suppose that this post-natal life
where all we have is time, is fetal life,
is where as we bounce and flex in time
our years of moons change us
into beings viable not here
but somewhere attentive. Suppose,
borne down on, we are birthed
into a universe where love’s not crazy;
and that split out of time is
death into a medium where
love is the element we cry out to breathe,
big love, general as air here,
specific as breath.

I want to talk to those outlanders
whose perspective I admire;
I listen often to the voices of the dead, and
it feels like my turn in the conversation.
I want to ask, say, Yeats (or
someone else it would make sense to,
Crashaw, Blake, H. D. who
worked out Sappho’s honey simile,
Joan word-lover you too, all you
who know what English has to do
with a possible answer)

          * * *

And I’d say, to set up the question:
after over a hundred lifetimes
of summers of honey since Sappho’s,
of beekeepers (who set out orchard
rows of nectarplants to bloom
before and after the appletrees,
          who sow alfalfa or tupelo,
          clover or roses,
          “all roses,” all summer,
then break the combs out of their dark
and decant the honey heavy & flowery)
—listen, it’s no different.
Honey’s still dangerous.
Honey’s pervasive.
Hunger for honey scalds if satisfied.
I know; I walk around dry-lipped;
my throat burns, and the August air at noon
ices it as I breathe because
I’ve been eating honey right from the spoon

and (as you, outside observers, can recall)
though petal & pollen nod golden & mild,
honey here burns like gall
and, having burned bitter
          sweet     raw     hot
generates a language for wild
love not limited to pollensoft
couplings of lovers; it generates
the longing to use that language
though there be not any one
to speak it to. Such honey
expressed as if it must be as love
which colors all encounters and lasts
long after one love has gone to seed,
changes the throat of a speaker
till it aches with expectancy
as it asks:

          * * *

WHAT (as at last I ask
          you of the outland honeyed universe,
          you great dead)
what do you do with love
when it is no more sexual
          than I am sexual,
when it is general
—in me, not mine—
and yet shapes the air,
like breath, like a honeyed
breath of air carrying
meaning between
me and everything there is;
when as if it must it defies
my daily exercise of savagery
and cause for guilt;
when it is absolute,
too sudden to disguise,
stubbornly addressed
to any eyes—
though it find me no less slothful nor
in any way more kind or wise?

What but
(since the love is in the language)
call it hope
—that helps a little—
and hope to imitate your inlands of example
by praising the possible;
what then but praise the ripening
cure of language which plays
among questions and answers
mediating even love and grief,
what but
          —as the window the morning
          as the foot the tilt of the ground
          as the river the lights of its city—
praise how the actions of language or honey
seem in their transport to express,
from the collected heat and sweetness
of hearing and speaking,
smaller and more human than belief,
some reason to read these thick omens
as good and those outlands as relief.

Excerpted from Collected Poems by Marie Ponsot. Copyright © 2016 by Marie Ponsot. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Excerpted from Collected Poems by Marie Ponsot. Copyright © 2016 by Marie Ponsot. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Marie Ponsot

Marie Ponsot

The author of numerous works, Marie Ponsot won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection The Bird Catcher (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010 to 2014.

by this poet



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The place of language is the place between me

and the world of presences I have lost

—complex country, not flat. Its elements free-

float, coherent for luck to come across;

its lines curve as in a mental orrery

implicit with stars in active orbit,

only their slowness or swiftness lost to sense.

The will