Exactly one month after she won The Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry in June, Marie Ponsot donated a quarter of that $100,000 check to her alma mater, St. Joseph's College for its new MFA, The Writer's Foundry. Join St. Joseph’s to honor Ponsot ’40, her poetry and her teaching legacy:
Tuesday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m.
University Club, 1 West 54th St.
RSVP required to Sally Solis,
email@example.com or 718 940-5732
OK, I can hear readers applauding the generosity of Ponsot, her poetry, her staunch opposition to war and her many honors – Lily, Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, Chancellor at the Academy of American Poetry, NYC Literary Legend.
But also thinking really, how could the world possibly need another MFA in writing? St. Joseph’s answer is to immerse the 19 students in the inaugural Foundry deep into Ponsot’s techniques, including observations instead of critique.
Ponsot’s summary of her pedagogy: “The method is give them writing to do that cannot be done wrong except by not doing it.”
Ponsot, 92, and her friend, fellow teacher and poet Rosemary Deen published Beat Not the Poor Desk in 1982 after teaching writing to remedial students at Queens College.
Jackson Taylor, who guides the Writer's Foundry, has experimented with the ideas of Ponsot and Deen before in many settings, including classes for women and men in prison, homeless writers at soup kitchens, and those in graduate courses. In each and every setting, the principles and practice generate great excitement because they discover that good writing can come from any background, he said.
A sample below: a Ponsot sonnet followed by observations by Deen.
WALKING HOME FROM THE MUSEUM
by Marie Ponsot
The pleasure of walking, Brother Angel,
calls to mind your Paradise panel
of radiant saviors. They step the vertical
at ease in their deathlife, delectable.
You show among slow green leaves their bliss in place
In the vivid repose of each breathless face.
I lack leaves and their air-changing grace.
I lack gold leaf and your burin skill. Here I walk
east and west of death, toward their lute-led talk,
its pure sound split from song. In their words’embrace
strangers partner. Their redeeming speech spans
time and tune. Solo, they also move as a throng
conversing, had lifted to open hand,
their speech sung as if not split from song.
From Easy: Poems, 2009 by Knopf
14 OBSERVATIONS ON A SONNET
by Rosemary Deen
1. The ordinary action (“walking home”) of the title brings the speaker into the stepping of the “radiant saviors” of the panel. And they, in Paradise, are also “walking home.”
2. A little of the “vertigo” of poetry sets in in paradoxes and double meaning: “death-life,” “breathless faces,” but balance (as in a dance) prevails.
3. Walk turns into talk, somehow. By the grace of rhyme, I suppose, and by con-versing?
4. The poem recalls the speaker’s friend, Leonard Deen, in the title of his book: Conversing In Paradise, and perhaps recalls the morning she read new poems under the slow green leaves and startled him into tears.
5. The sonnet divides by spacing into two parts: 6 lines and 8 lines, reversing the sonnet’s old imperative to keep tense and turn late. The sonnet trades tension for ease.
6. If you allow rhyme in unstressed syllables, the first four lines rhyme a,a,a,a. (Rich rhyme is song-like.) Or you could say the lines “rhyme” in their rhythm: a couple of trochées (angel and panel) and a couple of dactyls: vertical, (de)lectable. (The poem dances.)
7. From this primal unity of sound, the rhymes of the next three lines (place, face, grace) span the stanza break and stretch to line 10: embrace. So there are three rhymes in 10 lines. The triplet “-ace” rhyme embraces (as it were) the interesting couplet: walk/talk.
8. The governing pronoun at first is you: direct address to the painter, who is related to the poet as “brother.” They are both poietes, makers, and are together in the museion, the shrine of the muses.
9. Then the governing pronoun becomes I, the poet speaker--but in her negatives: “I lack….I lack….”
10. These “lacks,” as it were, turn the poem to the fullness of they. Or, to put it another way, the makers, the poietes, give way to the poiema, the thing made.
11. The poem is filled w/ the sense of telos: the end that is there in the beginning. The dancers, for instance, here in the great end, Paradise, make their poiema, their redeeming speech--which was there in the beginning in the burble and warble of infant “speech”: “pure sound spilt from song.”
12. The sonnet ends with speech as poiema: “speech sung as if not split from song.”
13. So the sonnet and the painting turn the impacted end, death, into a telos, a stepping-toward, the purposeful speech/dance of paradise.
14. Speech itself walks from solo, a song alone, into con-versing: the “together-turning” of speech as dance with others, in whose ease, strangers partner in their words’ embrace.
Catherine Woodard is co-publisher of Still Against War/ Poems for Marie Ponsot. Her poems have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Bellingham Review and other journals and are at www.catherinewoodard.com. Woodard has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Hambidge Center in Georgia. She worked to restore Poetry in Motion to the NYC subways and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America.