The Jolt of Language

Reader, I come bearing good news: Marie Ponsot’s Collected Poems is now officially for sale. If you’re a poetry reader, if you’re a Commonweal reader, if you’re a lover of “the jolt of language” and the “shine of laughing,” of “yellow short flowers” and “street-canaled cities” and “cosmogenesis,” then you should buy this book. It is, simply put, a marvel.

Ponsot has had a remarkable, and remarkably long, career. Her debut collection, True Minds, was published in 1956—back when Ginsberg, Lowell, and Bishop strode the earth. The first poem in that book, and the first poem in her Collected Poems, is “Take My Disproportionate Desire.” It speaks in a voice that is confident and complicated, rich but not overwrought. Above all else, though, it speaks in a voice that is attentive—attentive to itself and to the world it speaks of and through:

Enough of expressionist flowers lions and wheat,

Let us consider our separate needs

Here in this beautiful city of delicate surfaces

That a touch makes bleed.

Ponsot has said that poetic “forms create an almost bodily pleasure in the poet.” “Take My Disproportionate Desire,” which uses rhyme and regular stanza structure, shows the potential joys of form even while it urges us to turn in new directions, away from the familiar tropes of “flowers and lions and wheat.”

The poem ends with a strong declaration: “I need that passion, miracle, / Incautious faith. To only you I offer it.” Passion, miracle, and faith: True Minds and the collections that followed—including 1981’s Admit Impediment, 1998’s The Bird Catcher, 2002’s Springing, and 2009’s Easy—contain all of these things in abundance. There is passion for, and faith in, music and painting, flowers and philosophy, God and the “city seeing loving I cry / Is holy.” Ponsot, in poem after poem, attends to the miracle of consciousness, the startling nature of sensory experience: “instantly everyone’s cup is clean, bright, full / of a supreme wine, / its ripe light still.”

One of the most striking features of Ponsot’s verse, first signaled by that second-person “you” in “Take My Disproportionate Desire,” is how intimate it appears. The reader feels addressed, called, remembered, even loved, as in “Plot Summary”:

The past persuades me to trust the calendar

and I do—unless I sleep or unless

some wind, some scent like the Hudson low-tide stink

splits time & I think you, and you are all I think.  

There are lines and stanzas of comparable strength scattered throughout Collected Poems. The poet Christian Wiman has said, “I don’t really believe in Collected Poems. They’re almost always bad. The bad so far outweighs the good, I mean, that you’re left with a negative impression of even truly great poets like Frost or Stevens.” Well, Ponsot’s book offers an astonishingly high proportion of good to bad—a sure sign, I think, of her greatness.  

Ponsot has been publishing poetry for sixty years, with the last twenty being the most productive, taking up over half of the pages in Collected Poems. Now ninety-five, Ponsot continues to publish regularly. Her most recent poems, many of which first appeared in Commonweal (for whom she was once poetry editor), still dazzle with their quiet learnedness (“Against Fierce Secrets” grows out of Yeats’s “Among School Children,” for instance) and with their sharp phrasing. A small sampling of some of the gold to be found in just the poems of the past ten years: “The place of language is the place between me / and the world of presences I have lost”; “Earth bears us with undismissing. / Enveloped, we hear it thrum”; “I like to drink my language in / straight up, no ice no twist no spin.” (That’s about as good an opening to a poem as you can get.)

The publication of Collected Poems is a major poetic event, and I hope that it offers a chance to celebrate Ponsot’s entire career. I’ll give her the last word. These lines, taken from the recent poem “Migrant Among Us,” show Ponsot at her best: attuned to the world and to language and, by the strength of this attunement, asking us to be the same. Reader, take up and read:

The otherworld is this world heeded

so well it swims in close to us,

its echo and shadow a swivel

of unintended attention.

 

 

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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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