In the New York Botanical Garden in November, Marie Ponsot paused in front of a towering tree. She recalled as a little girl she delighted her mother with the observation that trees are just like big bunches of flowers.
That power of pause, of reflection transformed with language, often with a jolt of joy (or pain), makes Marie Ponsot, 91, an inaugural NYC Literary Legend. She is a poet who sees and seizes the lyric moment in her work and in her life.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the 2012 Literary Honors Thursday. Joining Ponsot, were Walter Dean Myers for children’s literature, Paul Auster for fiction, Roz Chast for humor, Robert Silvers for literary life and Robert Caro for nonfiction.
“The clarity of cloud is in its edgelessness,” asserts the poem Ponsot read at the Gracie Mansion ceremony. That poem, "This Bridge, Like Poetry, Is Vertigo," ends with these four lines: “Late at night when my outdoors is/indoors, I picture clouds again:/Come to mind, cloud./Come to cloud, mind.”
Mother to seven, mentor to many, Ponsot writes and teaches with a child’s delight in exploration. But this child reads Latin, translates French and has published numerous poetry collections. The most recent are Easy (2009), Springing (2002) and The Bird Catcher (1998), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among many honors, Ponsot holds the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal for lifetime achievement and was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2010.
Professor emerita of English at Queens College, CUNY, Ponsot also has taught in national and international graduate programs. With colleague Rosemary Deen, Ponsot wrote Beat Not the Poor Desk. This revolutionary text for effective writing teaching won the Shaughnessy Medal of the Modern Language Association. Ponsot still teaches at the Unterberg Poetry Center of 92nd Street Y and at The New School.
The city ceremony capped a week of Ponsot appreciation that began Monday at the KGB Bar in the East Village. She first read “TV, Evening News,” a poem that begins with a “screenful of chaos” from the war in Afghanistan.
“I don’t know the languages,” the speaker claims, “I safe screen-watch.” But nevertheless Ponsot connects all of history and humanity in the third, six-line stanza: “Achilles is not there, or Joshua either…/My children are thank God not there/any more or less than you and I are not there.”
As a tank takes out a wall, Ponsot subverts a word of worship: “the house genuflects,” and a woman howls in the dust before the camera cuts to the next shot.
Ponsot is seriously Still Against War, her trademark yellow button and the title of two books of poetry by former students from several decades. Jamie Stern, poet, publisher and lawyer, gathered three dozen students at her Tribeca loft Tuesday to read from Still Against War II. And to take a challenge to describe beyond clichés Ponsot’s bright smile and blue eyes, eyes simultaneously piercing and generous.
“She smiles like she has a secret but one she is happy to let you in,” Michael Bennett said.
“The generosity of the Dalai Lama’s eyes,” offered Elizabeth Coleman.
“Blue laser beams that can zap x-rays or cut glass,” said Jackson Taylor.
In a Ponsot workshop, students do not offer subjective improvements to the poems of others. Instead she draws out rigorous, detailed observations, which inevitably give the poet a notion about what to fix. (I keep on my desk two pithy paragraphs Ponsot wrote about her grandmother’s three-word expression “Mind Yourself Child.” Change the intonation and stress on each word and you too will be thinking about identity in complex ways.)
Still Against War I in 2011 celebrated Ponsot’s 90th birthday and her recovery from a heart attack, stroke and aphasia the year before. Ponsot got critical rapid care because she had a son call poet Scott Hightower, whose partner is an emergency room doctor.
Imagine a life in which her emergency call is to a fellow poet. “She lives poetry on a scale that is just so elemental,” Hightower said. “Not only as a writing mentor but a teaching mentor.”
In the days before she could speak again, Ponsot was taking inventory in her head of language lost, instinctually poking around for passages she knew in more than one language and for a long time. When she couldn’t recall “The Lord’s Prayer” in English, she tried it in French. When that didn’t work, she remembered a Latin manuscript and from visual memory began to translate it back into English.
While Ponsot lay in intensive care, Sapphire, novelist and poet, snuck in to deliver six small notebooks and pen. Once home, a poet posse of students and friends came by to read and talk about poems regularly to help Ponsot regain lexicon and syntax. Her fluency with language restored, Ponsot read new poems as well as published work at Monday’s reading.
As she told a group of high school poetry students in the Bronx in November, even in the hospital she followed the only rule she’s ever made for herself about writing – do it at least 10 minutes every day. “If I could do that with seven children, so can you,” Ponsot said.
Then to their surprise, 15 minutes into the class they’d expected to be a lecture and reading from a master, Ponsot leaned forward and announced “My dears, let’s hear your poems.”
One by one, they read while Ponsot listened as intently as she watches trees and clouds and children and wars and words.
Catherine Woodard wrote “Secret of Tomato” as a tribute to Ponsot and appears in both Still Against War volumes. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. She worked to restore Poetry in Motion to the NYC subways and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia. In 2011, she was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a featured poet at UnshodQuills.com. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from The New School and MS in journalism from Columbia University.