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On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 24, a mixture of sundry undergraduates, a few interested administrators, and virtually every faculty member in the English Department filed into Convocation Hall to watch Marie Ponsot, acclaimed poet and teacher, receive the 29th Aiken Taylor Award. Ms. Ponsot, 94, is the author of six collections of poetry, including The Bird Catcher (1998), and Easy (2009), translator of numerous French children’s stories, and co-author (with Rosemary Deen) of two books on the craft of writing. She has taught writing at New York University, Columbia, Queens College, and served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010-2014.
After accepting the award from the Vice-Chancellor, Ponsot read twelve poems from her diverse and powerful oeuvre. Among them were “Private and Profane,” originally published in 1957, “About My Birthday,” from 2002, and a soon-to-be-published piece entitled “Celebration.” Though Ponsot did not rise from her chair during the reading, her great facial and vocal expressiveness conveyed all of the wit and pathos present in her work. As Ruth Swallow, a Carleton freshman in Sewanee for spring break, commented, “Marie Ponsot has a keen sense of humor and uncommon perspective on the metaphysical… Her use of form is uniquely musical.” The force, clarity, and formalism of Ponsot’s work are all the more remarkable, as the poet suffered a stroke in 2010 which greatly affected her ability to use language. In particular, Ponsot’s aphasia hinders her ability to mentally retrieve words and form speech. She did not discuss the exact effects of the stroke on her artistic process, but apologized for any difficulties in the reading, as she sometimes repeats words or alters their order within a phrase or sentence. Neither of these issues, however, diminished the power of Ponsot’s reading; David Provost (C’17) remarked particularly on her “delicate and kind artistry,” exclaiming that the reading “made me want to pick up pen and paper then and there!”