Poets Sally Dawidoff and Jean Gallagher visited Marie Ponsot’s Upper East Side apartment just before she handed in her sixth collection—a yet-untitled manuscript—to Knopf. After a tour of her flowering terrace garden, Ponsot talked about truth, basketball, and the new book.
Marie Ponsot: Well, as you can see, I’m in the middle of papers. I’m trying to sort out a manuscript that is a little bit different from any other manuscript I’ve done, because I am including in it poems of an even wider assortment of kinds than I usually do. The kind of poem, for example, that I tend to write as a sort of a warm-up. I have saved a bunch of those, and I have just put them in. I would say there should be no boundaries according to genre; there can be every tone, every kind of voice. There can be meter and rhyme. In the last hundred years, it has been increasingly unpermitted to use meter or rhyme, people are so scared of it.
Sally Dawidoff (Rail): Scared of it why?
Ponsot: To write well in meter takes practice—not a lot of practice, but some practice. And it takes a gift for the sound of language, which can be cultivated but—in order to reach any degree of expertise—must be cultivated. One of the big advantages of writing metrically without great difficulty, which happens if you practice just a little bit, is that the meter bears ideas forward into your consciousness somehow, like tunes.
I had a very skilled basketball player in my class. He was playing for one of the big college teams, and his coach was anxious that he do his homework and pass the class. He was very well supervised from the outside, not by me. But he didn’t have very much experience with writing poetry. He was taking my class because I had agreed to this monitoring by his coach, and because I’m always interested in something different coming along, some person who will put in one more element, one who will widen the scope of the class. The assignment was for people to write sonnets, and he came in with something that was neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. And he knew it—he hadn’t stayed with it very long; he did it, but he didn’t re-do it or anything. Or maybe he did, but it didn’t show. He didn’t get it, anyway. So I suggested he come and see me in my office hours, which he did. And I told him all about the wonderful things that meter can do, and I said some lines that struck him as being very great, and yeah! yeah! He liked that, but I was not getting through to him at all. He might be able to admire a rhythm from the outside, but the permission to generate a rhythm of his own was not present—until I said the magic word. I said, “Practice.” And that’s something he knew more about than I did. Really a lot more about. You know, he was on a team that was hoping to be a champion, so he thought he could go home and do something. And he did! For him, “practice” meant you do it and, whether or not you like the result, you do it again, and you do it again, and you do it again, and you do it again, until you have some feeling that you’re doing it. So a week later, he came to class with seven sonnets. And by the time he had written the seventh, he was getting it. He was getting it, and from then on, he was fine. (And as a matter of fact, he was a little bit ready to step in with anybody who complained about having the assignment.)
Dawidoff: What does teaching give you?
Ponsot: Besides joy? Plaisir? Where else are you going to go, where else in the universe are you going to go, except a class to which you can say, “Go home and write me another wonderful poem for next week,” and they come in and you’ve got fifteen brand-new poems that nobody ever saw before?
Gallagher: So the warm-up poems are where you have a rhythm . . .
Ponsot: When I’m coming in from a walk, maybe from something like swimming, that sense of rhythm is a strong incentive to expression. I have some tune going in my mind that’s a rhythmic tune, or at least appears to me to have a rhythm. And walking is a very good occasion for coherent and consecutive thinking, but it is usually interrupted by slightly cuckoo notions. You’re walking along and you happen to notice the clouds, and you will think something about their soundlessness. . . .
Gallagher: I hear Donne in your poems, I hear Dickinson, I hear Djuna Barnes, I hear Shakespeare—but I hear Hopkins the most. Do you want to talk a little bit about Hopkins and your relationship to him?
Ponsot: Well, it changes over the years. There’s a poem in the book called “Thank Gerard.” I have an intense, intense love of what they call the “terrible sonnets,” the sonnets in which he keeps going in spite of being in . . . despair, really, or very close to the bottom of the pit of despair. He couldn’t be as prayerful as he wanted to be, he couldn’t experience prayer as anything but a deadly, isolating event, and he didn’t quit. Ever. He complained, but he didn’t say, “Well, this is not for me; this is no good.” He had made a vow, in fact, that he would not quit, so he didn’t. That act of being faithful to one’s original intention is something that the twentieth century gradually gave up on. First we lost our contact with the reality of reality. We decided that language always betrays reality, or reality always betrays language, or we always betray ourselves with language in regard to reality. So that relationship of the innocent, of the ignorant, of the non-sophisticated, of the uninformed theoretically, of the Cartesian rather than the Husserlian, was not really very well regarded. That idea that “I have said I will, and so I do.” And it’s odd because, even though men have, and women have, varying degrees of success (not a lot of success) in keeping their word, they have made vows as far back as recorded history takes us, and they have felt themselves bound by those vows, even in betraying them.
So it’s something that the twentieth century threw out without even noticing.
Gallagher: Is there some kind of vow that you’ve made to yourself in writing poetry?
Ponsot: For me the big turnaround was the summer I was teaching at Queens College and had written a poem that I was taking quite seriously, saying a lot of things that I was trying to think through, and I got a little time and worked on this poem. It was clear to me what was wrong with it. Not only did it go on a long time, it was not scrupulous about telling the truth. And once that occurred to me, I tried to go through it—and it meant rewriting everything. And I’ve never said this, really, before, quite the way I’m trying to say it now. For me that became . . . well, certainly not a vow (I wouldn’t dare), but a kind of principle of revision. Maybe not telling the truth, but not lying. Telling as much as I can in the direction of the truth. Or telling the way in which something is true for me. (And the more we say what’s true, the more we have to say.)
Gallagher: You’ve often talked about poems being “fully imagined.” What does that mean to you?
Ponsot: I do think that is the pleasure of the imagination—when it is not static, when you don’t have a fixed picture in your imagination, but when you have a set of elements that are interacting. To thoroughly imagine something means reporting on all those actions and interactions. And that’s sometimes where it really takes you.
Dawidoff: What are the connections among imagination, mystery, and obfuscation in poetry?
Ponsot: I think that for many years I assumed, with some reason to make the assumption, that if someone is taking the trouble to write a poem, they do want to communicate something to somebody. And I perceive now that there is a Middle-European point of view about this, the Kristeva poke in the gut, that says, “No, no, I don’t want to communicate. I want to force you first to do something by following these sentences. You’re going to be forced to do something I want you to do.” And that’s not the same as communicating. “Forced to read the poem using the broken lexicon that I have offered you. You’re going to read this poem, and, if you’re cool and correct, you will abandon your usual way of treating language and make up a way of treating language that fits my requirements, not yours. Because your requirements are wrong. They’re old; they’re not new. Therefore, they’re wrong.” That’s the logic of it.
Dawidoff: Can a poem that uses language experimentally teach us how to read it?
Ponsot: I would like to say first: every, every, every single poem, every written line of verse that makes sense, is an experiment. I trust language not for what it isn’t, but for what it is. I don’t think language is everything, but I do think it is a very large part of the contract humanity has with its members.
Gallagher: In one new poem, “Evening News on TV,” I see you grappling with the damage that power misconstrued does. That is the poem about the evening news, where you’re watching the house getting bulldozed. And at the end, you say, “the prayer of all the kneeling houses” is “answerable anywhere.”
Ponsot: Yes. We are answerable for those events. But with the “anywhere,” what I was trying to do is to imply that what you have to do may not be—unless you happen to be a builder with great power—to go and rebuild that house. But instead, you have to find something that you can do that is against suffering. The kinds of suffering that are real suffering are everywhere. Some kinds are so intimate and so crucial that they can’t be dismissed. If you torture somebody—victims of torture can’t just say, “Oh, well.” They’re not allowed gestures of their own.
Dawidoff: What are a poet’s responsibilities?
Ponsot: I don’t think that “telling truth to power” is just the poet’s task; I think everybody should always tell everyone the truth. (Not that I always do—but ideally.) The big thing you really have to do, which I think is within our scope, is to refuse to lie knowingly. A poet is the person who takes time from the other tasks of the world’s work to try to tell the truth. So the obligation to do it more frequently or more accurately or more consciously or more willingly, at least, is greater. And the form of the telling is part of something—like language—bigger than the poet. If you’re doing it, you should take yourself seriously and do the best you can. Do the damn best you can! And know that this one may not be it, but maybe if you work hard on this one, the next one may be better. You have to believe that the resource is there, that there’s a place for it to come from and a place for it to go. The place that it comes from is your language. And the place where it can go is into this vast conversation of human animals trying to say something memorable.
Dawidoff: You said that the new manuscript contains a “wider assortment of kinds” of poems . . .
Ponsot: I am struck quite strongly by the wide range of difference in this manuscript, as opposed to most of the books I read.
Dawidoff: Are you reading anyone who is doing something similar?
Ponsot: Let me summon one of the greats as an example. Paul Muldoon has the lyrics for some of his rock songs together in one book. And some of those song lyrics are also in his collections of poems. So that’s a door opening. They are lovely satires, very rhymed, very rhythmic. His opening of that door is very useful to my view of what I’m allowed to do. There are many ways of doing it. One which is a little different is the high exuberance of John Hollander, who puts in poems of great solemnity and weight and so forth, and then has a long poem about the New York Yankees, which is done while juggling bar-ballad forms. So that’s another example of a recent book of poems that has a wider range than what you’d expect. I think I ought to say that many of the poems in my manuscript are in a diction that is somewhere between high and demotic—mixed, mixed, mixed—and then there are others which are I think sort of high all the way—not many, but some—and then there are others that are pure demotic. For example, this is a poem called “Shrike”: Some do what they like / Some like what they do / The butcher bird’s called shrike / What shall I call you?
Dawidoff: I’m scared of that poem.
Ponsot: That is not a poem that I would ever have thought I could put in a book. And here’s another one which is a little bit different. It’s called “Contracted,” about that terrible, badly written law, the marriage contract. [She reads it aloud. See poem below.]
Gallagher: That’s a killer. The form is so light, with the quick rhymes, and then. . . What is that form?
Ponsot: I made it up. It’s a lot of fun to give yourself permission to do this, by the way. I recommend it to all. You know, the level of solemnity that is called for in a book of poems ought to be decided entirely by the temperament of the poet. And that means that mine should have more giggles in it than a book usually does.
Dawidoff: You came to recognition late. What has the experience been like?
Ponsot: It’s a very dicey thing. It’s a very peculiar thing. You feel tremendously pleased by it, grateful for it—it’s gratifying, you know. And you have to not look very much at what kind of a misapprehension of many things it is, or includes—because, although to those of us who are inside of the world of people who write poems, it seems very ample and large, and to people who read poems, it seems about the same size, it’s almost an invisible blip on the surface of human concourse right now. So that, though you may feel that you are a very visible frog in the pond, it’s tiny. And, fortunately for you, it’s not the pond of poetry that’s tiny; it’s the pond of people in the poetry biz, people in the world of poetry, people who are actively reading and writing. There’s a larger world in which poetry exists, which is a whole other question. The world in which you get to be better known is a little, tiny world.
Dawidoff: Any date on the book?
Ponsot: Oh, I really intend to have it in by the next week or two. My task, between now and next Thursday, is to settle on the order of the pages. I have three sections, and, not in any lock-down way, I’ve loosely sorted everything into those three sections, and when you arrived, I had just finished the second and was starting the third. And I’m going to look at those tomorrow. Deborah [Garrison, at Knopf] is expecting me to send it in now. I said I would, and she is wonderful and expeditious.
Gallagher: What makes the three sections? How do you know which poems belong together?
Ponsot: I got started by doing one of them on the basis of diction, of what I thought the tone was, and that made it possible to do the other two. Most of the really sort of demotic, rhymed, funny ones are in the same section. I also have various things that are “in-the-voice-of,” so those are adjacent. I don’t have any thematic organization; I’m skipping around a lot. I don’t ever manage to write like a novelist, same narrator carrying the sequence. I think there are themes that keep coming up, but in different forms, in different ways.
Dawidoff: What makes one of your poems recognizably yours?
Ponsot: Random learning.
Poems reprinted by permission of Marie Ponsot.