Eye and Guy


Marie Ponsot's latest poetry collection,


Springing, has been praised by critic Harold Bloom, who proclaimed, "Marie Ponsot's poetic achievement is fiercely independent. A courageous eloquence is sustained throughout her work, as she mounts up what Emerson called 'the stairway of surprise.'"

Ponsot's previous collection,

The Bird Catcher

The Bird Catcher, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 1998.

Ponsot's other books of poems include True Minds (1956), Admit Impediment, and The Green Dark

She is a native New Yorker who has enjoyed teaching at Queens College, Beijing United University, the Poetry Center of the YMHA, New York University, and Columbia University. Among her awards are an NEA Creative Writing grant, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize, and the Shaughnessy Medal of the Modern Language Association.

spacer 20x20*spacer 20x20

"Ponsot attends to elegant forms without losing sight of what they are there to express: the cadences of a life passionately considered."
- The New Yorker

"A Marie Ponsot poem is a little like a jeweled bracelet, carefully carved, with small, firm stones embedded."
- The New York Times

"... All her work projects the iridescent insistence of a poet speaking just as she wants to speak."
- San Francisco Chronicle

"Ponsot doesn't hurry her poems... and, consequently, they are aged to perfection: complex and concentrated."
- Booklist

Marie Ponsot

Native New Yorker Marie Ponsot is one of the most venerated poets writing in America today. Her collection of new and selected poems, Springing, just released, is already in its second printing, a mark rarely achieved by poets publishing in today's literary marketplace.

Her verse is elegant, refined, and packs a punch with a frequent twist of phrase or an unexpected revelation. She makes us feel poetry is the necessary antidote to our media-strewn culture, filled as it is, with sound bites and fragmented images. But then again, maybe it is just her poetry that is a cleanser and balm to our modern minds. editorial consultant Meghan Cleary had a chance to sit down with Marie at a tiny Italian restaurant and linger well into the espresso course...

*               *

failbetter:  Do you think forms live naturally in language or do you think you have to summon them out somehow?

Ponsot:  I think there are the forms of syntax which give you part of the mental light of the poem. It is the way the mind takes in the relation of an actor or a subject acting, you know.

The subject and the verb together link up in some grasping way that grabs meaning for us-and that's a poem. That link between subject and predicate is a formal leap. And then there are other ways in which language is formal. Even the most colloquial truck driver cursing out a cab driver will have a structure. Usually when someone is enraged, it will have a rhetorical structure. Yes, I think language generates forms because language conveys meaning, and if there is no form holding anything together, how are you going to hand somebody the soup?

The great surviving forms of the Old Testament for example will turn up over and over again in American literature. Whitman writes in that form. Doesn't look like a form to us because we have sort of a narrow view of a form, like a quatrain, "its got to have four lines and the second and fourth line have to rhyme", and stuff like that... And that kind of form is great fun to play with. It's really fun to play with because it's got to contain these other levels of formality that are here in human language and it's got to do all of that at once. And thank god for our mother's knee where we learned all the hard stuff without pain, you know.

failbetter:  Who do you like to read?

Ponsot:  I love the Cavalier poets, the Renaissance poets, I love Dante. Not so much the Inferno but the way the Inferno produces the Purgatoriam-and then together the Inferno and the Purgatoriam  produces the Paradiso which is one of the great works of literature. Very concrete images of the Inferno, extremely concrete, and the effect on the speaker of the poem and the guide and the effect among the characters of the punishment that they are undergoing and their history are all very, very concrete. Then in the Purgatoriam, the level of concreteness is also very sharp but it's kind of spread out through air-they keep walking, they can breathe easier, and Beatrice arrives and that makes it all still lighter, more open and then the Paradiso which is just this explosion of light and beautifulness. So I read that. I just finished reading it about two weeks ago.

failbetter:  What did you like to read as a child, what were you drawn to?

Ponsot:  Anything in print. I was a desperate omni-lect... My mother was always, in her own adorable way, trying to send me out to play, and I did that, because I was good child, God help me, but what I was really looking forward to was getting back in there and backing into a corner with my book, and I read it all. I read sort of grown-up things, childish things. I read them over and over sitting in the corner.

I read a lot of modern poetry too. I don't read very much fiction. At the moment I'm reading a remarkable woman called Elaine Scarry, who has three books that I know of, and all three of them truly refreshing and the latest one I think every poet should read, they would really like it, they would just delectate in it. One of the words that has dropped out of writing program writing, is imagination. People don't know what it means anymore. They think that it is something Paul McCartney wrote about, and she is trying in a really meticulous way to look at the events the whole phenomenology of imagining something and writing it. She has a whole hypothesis about why some things are present when we are writing-not only do we get that out of our own head onto the page, but then how does the reader get it back and pick it up?

I've been reading philosophy all my life because it is so interesting to me and I never saw anybody write about imagination the way Scarry does as-as an act. Theories of the imagination in classical philosophy are interesting, they're wonderful, but they don't do this at all, they would think that is un-philosophical, but we don't think that anymore. And she is a philosopher, it's just wonderful. It's called Dreaming by the Book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) and it's not dreaming, it's better than dreaming! It's imagining.

I believe it's the life of language in our heads, the preconscious life of language because all the language we have is in our heads. Put your hands on your head and all the language you've possibly got is in there.

failbetter:  Do you ever feel like you don't have enough language?

Ponsot:  What I feel is that there are times when my access to my own language is somehow impaired, I can't get at it-"there is something there, something there"-the trickle is so thin I can't get it and that's frustrating. You just have to be unbearably patient and keep pressing. And wait.  

failbetter:  When you sit down to write a poem, generally, do you find the poem comes out because you are writing, or do you have something in your head and it comes out then?

Ponsot:  Occasionally, I have something in my head that's on its way. When the weather is friendly I like to go for long walks and I'm not sure but I think the rhythms of walking gives me some sort of language access. Somehow the purposeless of walking, not going somewhere, just going. And looking around and seeing this and seeing that, sometimes a phrase will come to my mind out of the morass of stuff that interests me enough for my mind to keep going with it, to keep thinking it, and I might come home with five or six lines and the rest of it, you know, comes out of that.

You can start anyplace and language will be your friend if you really want to work on it. You can say to yourself, "all right, the first thing I see when I open my eyes I am going use that as a subject." Ordinarily, writing about a subject is lethal. Most of the really dull stuff you get is because someone decided to write a poem ABOUT, and it comes out really wrong because every cliché in your head clusters around it and the subject attracts the cliché long before it attracts real language, and you have to work it out, you have to sweat it out, and it takes strong exercise for your sweat to cleanse you of that so that you are approaching the subject or event in itself, and can say something about it that is not a cliché and advances the theory you have about it, into some kind of light.  

failbetter:  Writing is so weird...

Ponsot:  It is. It really is. Language itself does the writing. We know that we have language. That is one of the things memory is packed with, everything we know is remembered verbally, the conversation of language, is what we store, and I think the that's not very tightly compartmented back there [gesturing to the back of her head].  I think it's all swimming around back there, you know, I think it's all swimming around, all the time.

Language itself is weird and it does some amazing things.

We don't have perfect access to all that stuff. That's why rewriting is vital. If you had to get it perfect the first time you'd die. You'd shoot yourself. You are going to have stuff coming and coming...


From our
interview archive

E.L. Doctorow
Photo © Nancy Crampton

E.L. Doctorow
Issue 14 - Summer 2004

Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus
Issue 3 -
Spring/Summer 2001