By Lam Ho Executive Editor
Photo courtesy of http://nyss.webfactional.com
When Marie Ponsot titled her first two books, True Minds and Admit Impediment, she referred to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken…
Twenty-nine years ago, Sewanee established the tradition of presenting the Aiken Taylor Award, created to honor a distinguished American poet for his or her work. Among those honored are Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht, W.S. Merwin, Wendell Berry, and Dana Gioia. Ponsot, this year’s recipient, has influenced the remarkable David Yezzi to write the eloquent “Marie Ponsot’s Ever Fixed Mark.”
David Yezzi, renowned poet, critic, and editor, delivered the lecture the day before Ponsot received her award. A longtime admirer, Yezzi grasped a deep understanding of Ponsot’s career, inspirations, and, most recently, her recovery from a stroke. In 2010, Yezzi explained, Ponsot’s stroke wiped away a vast collection of poems she had memorized — yet, as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times wrote soon after she began her recovery, she remembered the Lord’s Prayer, “Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.” Of course, she remembered it in Latin.
Personal and heartfelt, the lecture shed light on Ponsot’s life journey. Among her revelations was the advice for all dedicated writers to sit down and write “for ten minutes a day.” To him, he said, it is probably the best advice he has ever received. Afterward, Ponsot met with those present at the lecture and reiterated this advice: “It’s the best thing you can do as a young writer. Don’t forget to write for ten minutes a day. Five, if you must.”
Yezzi’s lecture delighted the audience, never failing to recognize Ponsot’s importance as not only a poet, essayist, and teacher, but one whose journey through life, motherhood, and divorce has challenged her to cultivate her poetry and to explore different forms, including the villanelle, sestina, and, as Yezzi emphasizes, the tetrina. He recalled a fond memory of her teaching a workshop on the titrina, which requires the repetition of unrhymed words that come together in the last line of the tenline poem. The catered event attracted the attendance of local English teachers, as well as community members who have experienced Ponsot’s poetry. The next day, Ponsot was presented the 29th Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry in Convocation Hall. Marie Ponsot once said, “I had been saying for 20 years that the abolishing of rhyme and heavier rhythms in poetry has led to hiphop. Poets aren’t allowed to do it, but it won’t go away. It’s been there for thousands of years, so it takes the form of rap. We need to get back to the joy of being a poet — not have it always be written in anguish, or have to be mean spirited or edgy and blackbrowed and ominous, or ‘my thoughts are loftier because they’re poems.’ Poetry should just be a great joy, and we should have perfect freedom to enjoy it in that simpleminded way.”
Marie Ponsot, born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Jamaica, Queens, began her writing career as a child. She earned her undergraduate degree at St. Joseph’s College for Women in Brooklyn, then went on to pursue a master’s degree in seventeenth-century literature from Columbia University. Following WWII, she met Claude Ponsot in Paris, married him, and had six children before they divorced. Throughout her life, she never allowed life’s challenges to quell her incomparable talent: she worked as a freelance writer of radio and television scripts, translated children’s books from French, coauthored two books with Rosemary Deen, and taught a poetry thesis class (as well as other writing classes) at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y. She has taught at the YMCA, NYU, Beijing United University, and Columbia University. She served as an English professor at Queens College in New York before retiring in 1991.