MARIE PONSOT with David St.-Lascaux
In which Marie Ponsot tells David St.-Lascaux about the good world, the utility of idleness, language and fable, the sacred, the doing of things, and the pleasure principle of life.
Age is not
all dry rot.
It’s never too late.
Sweet is your real estate.
David St.-Lascaux (Rail): The doctors at Harvard say the next generation can live to be 140. Can one live too long? Can one live long enough? 140 for Marie Ponsot?
Marie Ponsot: I think there’s an artificial way of sustaining living which is not much fun. I have a friend whose mother only died last year at 107. When she was 105, she moved into her own house, an assisted living apartment. Every day she had lunch and a cigarette after lunch, just one. The day would go on with friends visiting and doing her walks and things like that. And then it would be time for dinner and she would have a very dry martini, one. This gave her life in between cigarettes, and the martini gave her a time of vitality, which isn’t always there when people are old. When you’re really flagged and taking 100 kinds of pills, I don’t think that’s any fun.
Jonathan Swift told us all the jokes about Gulliver’s voyages among old people; it’s just horrible. People are trying to be in charge of being old: the jobs, the money, and the power. That’s not really good. The world is too packed for itself right now, I think. We’re very tight. We’ve wasted all the resources of the planet. Whenever I think about the oil covering the Gulf, I think we ought to stop being strictly economical in our ways of living.
I had the privilege of having seven children. I loved having babies, but I was making the big bomb of population. Lots of people have five children, seven children, ten children. We all kept doing that because we had known all the wars for a long time.
In a skiff on a sunrisen lake we are watchers.
Rail: What do you want your poetry to do? Does poetry magnify our experience, emotionalize it?
Ponsot: I think language gives us most of what we’ve got. The most incomparable game of language is the making of poetry, because it tries to bind ideas and imagination and hard reason. Surges of feeling come through language when you manage to put all those forces of the human animal to work. It’s the best game in the world.
She can’t imagine that. Nothing
she needs can be got; if it could
she’d go get it:
Rail: You quote Alice Quinn as saying, “If we knew where poetry comes from, we’d all go there.” But Edward Hirsch says that people find poetry challenging, and thus poetry will have a small audience. Is it important that society at large want to read and write poetry?
Ponsot: Why is it important? Of all the arts, we all have it. Everyone speaks language, we have the matrix of language that is very personal. It’s the body by which we are informed. Whether you are rich or poor or educated or [not], we all have this body of poetry.
A small breeze rises and the leaves stir
as uneasy as we, while the woods go black;
its voice touches and parts the air of summer
Rail: Given finity, should a poet read poetry, or simply write? Isn’t time spent reading time not spent writing?
Ponsot: I can’t imagine someone who just writes and doesn’t read or who doesn’t do the reverse either. The matrix is language. Right now I haven’t written a poem in two months. I usually write all the time. Right now in this broken brain that I have right now, it’s as if it’s right there in my periphery, right there, but I’m not using it. I don’t want to rush into it. I want it to open to me, to want to do it. I can’t explain to you how different it is to be with this break in the language.
Rail: Are you reading?
Ponsot: Yes, I read all the time. I do two kinds of reading. I read junk, accidentally, whatever it is. I like philosophy: I read philosophy. I’m reading a man called John Rawls. He took the big work that he did in the ’70s called A Theory of Justice, and developed it further and broke it down into smaller and more developed parts. And that’s what I’ve been reading. He gives you a hypothesis, a way of imagining the good world. He has a theory [of a] just world in which we behave well, nations, individuals. He says don’t call them nations—call them peoples, because we are all alike.
Rail: Is his view utopian?
Ponsot: He says we need the utopian image in the back of our minds. He’s not saying, crack, it’ll be done. We need to think that all the parts of it could balance out without restraining people to say this is [what] you must do. You take the good part of the justice in people.
at Alhambra years ago, there
where we are, as we know.
Rail: You say that a poet should read poetry. Should a poet also travel, and why? What are the benefits of traveling?
Ponsot: My feeling is that there are all kinds of opening, whether it be getting up and hiking and opening, or mentally having all those doors open. You’ve got to open every door you that possibly can. I’m going to write a new collection: I’m going to call it Open the Door.
Rail: Which reminds me of one of my favorite poems—by Paul Éluard, called “Open Door.” Three lines, and I’ve paraphrased it, because I think it’s better to say, “Life is so lovable,” rather than “Life is very kind”:
Life is so lovable.
Come to me; if I come to you, it’s a game:
the angels of bouquets whose flowers change color.
Not bad for a mortal.
Ponsot: That’s like the utopia that Rawls is talking about, the emotional life, the interpersonal. I’ll tell you a story. I was rushing to get to an airport, leaving a hotel in Colorado. The only taxi I could take had an awkward climb, there was no strap to get in it, and I had books. The nervous taxi driver slammed the door on my finger. And I screamed at him, “Open the door!” He didn’t speak English too clearly. I said again, “Open the door!” He opened it. And I was wearing this ring, here—it’s my mother’s. It prevented me from squashing the finger all the way. It was amazing. When something is bothering you, that’s one of the doors you have to open.
Maybe it will empty me
and keep me here
asleep, at sea
under the guilt quilt,
under the you tree
Rail: I understand that you were quite lazy when you were young, raising seven children as a single mom, working. Are you the original multi-tasker? Did you know you would succeed?
Ponsot: I’m not a multi-taker. I think multi-tasking is bad for you. I have a tendency to do that because my mind is quick. Savor what you’ve got. Take it in. Try to fill it out in the corners of your mind. Don’t buzz off all the time. And if you need to do all that stuff, just go a little faster. Fixed, keep the focus clear. You’ll never get it any other way.
Rail: Better to be busy than to have idle time? Or does idle time have its uses?
Ponsot: I don’t there’s anything idle necessarily. I think doing nothing is one of the things I’m good at. I am very lucky: I have a big terrace in my apartment—about 700 square feet. For an apartment it’s little, but for a garden it’s perfect. It’s just heaven. I sit there in the morning and the sky is becoming brighter and brighter, and the birds are doing it.
Rail: And that’s where you found seeds: You understood what a seed is. Has gardening enriched your poetry?
Ponsot: Oh boy, I agree. I think it’s the same, in a way. As an urban person, which I really am all my life, the big, radical, 7,000 years of it going on, the growing earth—you’ve got to have that in touch with you. When you come into my little terrace, with all these container plants in pots, the poor souls, I do the best I can. I always look with astonishment: it’s not like the full-grown earth, but it’s a little piece of it. Something volunteers all the time, something springs up all the time.
the woman stands
having emptied her hands.
Rail: Your children’s books: Natural, given where you were in your life? Ponsot-offspring tested? Were you inspired by others besides Beatrix Potter?
Ponsot: My sixth child came into kindergarten and could read because he knew Beatrix Potter by heart. Peter Rabbit’s jacket with the buttons—it was just wonderful; he could just tell that story. I think the cadences of sentences that are really written like that stay with children who are now 60, which they are.
Rail: So you’re saying that reading and children’s literature actually teach us the cadences of language we speak ourselves.
Ponsot: Absolutely. I think the cadences of the sentences start at the very mimical times. I remember with my first baby, I couldn’t believe how enchanting she was. I didn’t like children; I wasn’t interested in them. The change was radical, just stunning; it was so wonderful. I would come into her room and I would say, Ou est Monique? And she couldn’t say anything, and I would say Tu voilà!, and I came in one day and I heard she was saying, La-la-lala, la-lala, that’s what she was doing, and I felt ashamed that I hadn’t recognized it right way. The minute I would say those things to her she began to say some of it.
Rail: David Byrne, a rock musician, wrote channeling Jack Kerouac’s Scripture of the Golden Eternity:
The band in heaven they play my favorite song
Play it one more time, play it all night long.
Oh, Heaven is a place—
a place where nothing, nothing ever happens
A friend recently conveyed an argument for the existence of G*d, being that anything we can’t possibly imagine must inherently exist. What is the essence of your belief system or faith, and what is its importance to you?
Ponsot: I don’t have a lot that I know. I have one central feeling, and that’s that I feel very so grateful. Look at us. I have experienced that sensation. So grateful for what? There is some presence, a benevolence. Maybe it’s what we’re able to make when we talk to each other. The seed goes in the dirt and it goes—click, click, click.
I wake to walk here, walk to learn my bounds.
Rail: Is poetry sacred?
Ponsot: Most things are sacred. We don’t have to be the judge of what is sacred or not. We will squash a little thing or ignore a little thing; if you remember it’s a little thing that’s sacred and it can be a big category, like whatever your work is, it is work that is sacred, that you are investing in, and also in yourself. It’s the thing that Rawls talks about: the importance of work, the making of things, the doing of things. I think it’s true that making something is very important. And one of the blessings of poetry is that it’s a little world. You want it to be a world, that poem, and for the moment, there it is. And when you’re done with it—it may be a rough draft or a hundred revisions; it’s very hard to explain—but you’re very happy.
I’ve taught people who thought, “I hate grammar, I’ll never write, I hate writing.” If you find a way of giving them a lesson to calm down and do the making, you take a really classic, primitive way of leading them paragraph by paragraph, and you make a fable, around the world and around time. And they do it—and I don’t care, I am not looking how they spelled it; forget it, just get it down—and then they read it to each other, and they all feel good. And at the end I say, all right now, leave a blank line and then write, “The moral of this story is ‘blank,’” and then they write an aphorism—a noble, noble form. We just made up a few human things about how to behave better, and this is one of the things. Give me the evidence and give me your idea. Leave the abstract out. And if you find enough other forms to offer them, based on the fable, they will begin to get structures of sentences and structures of essays and all that stuff. It’s been one of my great passions.
Rail: Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
Our fields lately fire-parched
now glossy cross the flat rise
you ploughed earlier. The whole
length of one sillion-streak gleams
You’ve been inspired—and you’ve inspired. You’ve taught poetry, which you’ve characterized as plaisir for the pedagogue. Is teaching poetry like waiting for geniuses to arrive? Can poetic talent be cultivated, really?
Ponsot: Absolutely. What you have to do is offer people a few simple principles. If they’re chosen and unmasked—say you put this next to that, then the meaning leaps, and people like that.
I have taken a very large emotional idea of what a poem can be, because I got that from Hopkins. There are other people who write in all kinds of different, marvelous ways. But that kind of steadfastness that he has, that courage he has to say, “it’s wretched.” And then in the terrible sonnets of Hopkins that tear you apart, he is asking for G*d to help him, and he is nothing. If you aren’t open to Hopkins’ pain that he exists, you’ll never hear the huge, sharp sounds. What it really is is comfort: comfort is the strength of being steadfast. The courage that Hopkins gives you certainly came to my hard heart not softly: I had to be battered. It would be lovely to just do jolly rhymes about euphoria. But the parts that are terrible: How do you live with them? You can look to Hopkins.
just the nothing it knows, & my distress
drives me toward the imagined truths I stalk,
Rail: Steven Pinker reported in the New York Times Magazine that people all over the world identified the following as defining morality: fairness, harm, authority, loyalty, purity. You, in an interview in 2008, cited truth as important. Why do you suppose people don’t identify truth as a moral concept?
Ponsot: I suppose it’s not a way in which we use language, the way our mass mind is all full of “if you say white, I say black; if you say lost, I say found.” So in some gross way there is a contrast within nature that has a kind of quest in it. Not saying, “First do no harm,” but rather just hacking through things. I think that that is in our natures all the time. We always have war, we kill people. The other part is when we come together and try to build something, and it is stronger. It might take us another million years.
Only the rich can choose to be poor.
There must be something I can do.
Rail: In 1888, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward 2000-1887, in which he said:
[A] society which was founded on the pseudo-self-interest of selfishness… has been replaced by… the true self-interest of a rational unselfishness…. [I]t was for the first time possible to see what unperverted human nature really was like…. The long and weary winter of the race is ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis.
Yet Mr. Pinker suggests that the system we have, based on selfishness and greed—instead of altruism and cooperation—is better than the alternative. Will our choices forever be between selfish bullies and repressive bullies? Are utopian schemes naïve?
Ponsot: It’s a huge question. If you go into a play yard, you see mothers and their babies, and they would protect them and nuture them all the time. It’s more than socialist: it comes out of an idea of socialism. The seed of that is something everyone has. They haven’t figured out the politic. They just know they just really love that kid. They might want to get their kid ahead of another kid. But that is not necessarily the emotion we all have.
I have a poem I am working on. It’s as if the enemy is right here in your face. And what Rawls says is, take a deep breath; if you wish to engage with the person, you’re not coming out with a dagger. I prefer comfort to pain, food to hunger. And if you take that thing that you know the other believes is true, too, and you that is what you propose—this is a place in which we agree. It might be thin, but if you resist and crumble and get mad you blow it. If you stay at that common reality, it will grow, maybe. That is a way.
It’s a screenful of chaos but
the cameraman’s getting good framing shots
from behind one woman’s back.
Rail [reading Ponsot’s coat button]: You’re “Still Against War.” At four percent of U.S. GDP and 21 percent of the federal budget, the American economy includes, and has always included a military component. Doesn’t war create jobs? Doesn’t war support America’s interests around the world? Doesn’t the threat of war cow our enemies? Isn’t war, like Ayn Rand’s Objectivist greed, good?
Ponsot: How do we change our mindset? War isn’t inevitable. It’s so painful to think about it. The bloody hands. But if you just say, okay, I’m going to go out and kill all these people for some great, just reason, remember that no war—whether winner or loser, ever achieved its aim. Wars do not work. We just have to remember that.
When you think of the jobs you need, because we don’t make anything anymore, we’re just idiots. Send it to China, send it to there. We’re just going to have gambling. They keep you with the bread and circuses to do that, and that’s what we do for entertainment.
Wet to the hips I dive under and swim turning in to pleasure.
The sea surges inshore. I surge out.
Rail: On PBS, you said, “I write for pleasure. I am a firm supporter of the pleasure principle of life.” My kind of woman! What brings you pleasure, darling?
Ponsot: I’m such a picker. I pick all the stuff that I like all the time. I say yes, that’s fine, because it’s given to me, gratefully right in front of my eyes, all the time.
Young Anyone, his lifted point of view far beyond the calendar.
What time is it? Firm in time
he is out of date—
Rail: You write longhand; you say you can read your own writing. The keyboard is much younger than the stylus. When it is superseded by mental dictation or thought-osmosis or whatever they will call it, will keyboardists be the old-fashioned, wistful ones, remembering the day when fingers lovingly caressed letters, deriving, perhaps, plaisir?
Ponsot: Get the pencil out, oh Lord. We have to put the body into what we do. Your mind is your body, your body is your mind. I really think that a flood in American poetry has been echoed in the minds of people who have been to the psychiatrist to tell their story. It’s not poetry; it’s not feeling, or reality. It’s not putting the body into it.
Carp drowse among stems sunk in the park lake,
their flesh rich in heavy metals. Eat one and die.
Rail: Raymond Kurzweil says that by 2045 computers will be able to learn recursively, that is, they will be able to learn to learn, and thus not require human intervention. What will computers write poetry about?
Ponsot: Well’s there’s nothing. The computer has no body, no instruments of language. The computer mostly is information and manipulation of information that has been extracted out of experience. I think that information is glorious. You can look up a lot of stuff and find it, but a computer is like a language, an active network. We are trying to imitate it: What for? Let it do what it can do. The information in the computer is not doing the same thing. It will develop another idea. It comes fast, it flashes. There is nothing wrong with information, but it’s not generative.
Go to a coming as to a going:
Rail: I recently asked a poet about her best poem, and she said she hadn’t written it yet. What are you working on now?
Ponsot: Revision is the joy of my game. I love doing it. After the stroke in 2010 I’ve been very cautious. To be unhurried is an act of effort. I have this one poem, a revision, about a small island.
As we lean over the deep well, we whisper.
Rail: Henri Matisse did his best work late in life. In fact, Mary Gordon compared you to him: “Like Matisse, as she ages she grows lighter, simpler, her wisdom more striking, more profound.” How has your life experience colored your poetry? How has your work changed over the years?
Ponsot: You opened a huge door there, because I love to teach workshops. And I think it’s crucial that we be fixed on the poem we are making. Publishing is not important; it’s not interesting. It will be, when the fruit is ripe. A bird or a beggar will eat the one that’s ready. You miss the joy of making a poem if you are thinking, “maybe it will go there, maybe I will tell this person.” It really is destructive for young poets for whom the great joy of poetry is what gets lost, because you’re never going to make a billion dollars, you’re never going to be a big star on Hollywood television, but what it’s going to give you is a happy life if you stay true to your work.
If you’re making a painting, it’s the same thing, or music even, but I don’t know that as well. And you feel exulted. You go to bed, you sleep well, and you wake up in the morning and you cannot wait to see it. You have made something. And that’s what I mean by the happy life.
MARIE PONSOT is one of America's most esteemed poets and recipient of the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection is the National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Easy (Knopf, 2009). Except as noted, excerpts are from her poems.
DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet, critic and author of the cultural/epicurean/erotic New York diary My Adventures with la Femme Charmee. His website is Interrupting Infinity.