Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry
The most significant prize administered by the Sewanee Review is the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry. It was made possible through the generous bequest of Dr. K. P. A. Taylor, a surgeon who was an excellent amateur poet, to celebrate distinguished American poets, especially his older brother Conrad Aiken.
The 29th Aiken Taylor Award
MARIE PONSOT HONORED WITH 29TH AIKEN TAYLOR AWARD
The Sewanee Review is proud to announce that Marie Ponsot is the recipient of this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. Marie Ponsot, known for her poetry and translation, was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2010 and in 2013 won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in American poetry. She lives in New York City.
Twenty-nine years ago, through the generosity of Dr. K. P. A. Taylor, the Sewanee Review established an annual award honoring a distinguished American poet for the work of a career. Howard Nemerov was the first poet honored and was followed by Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and W. S. Merwin. The other recipients of this important prize (which cannot be applied for) include Gwendolyn Brooks, Maxine Kumin, Wendell Berry, and, most recently, Donald Hall, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, William Logan, Debora Greger, and Dana Gioia.
CUT TO THE QUICK:
EARNESTNESS IN THE POETRY OF MARIE PONSOT
LIFE AND WORK
“I’ve been writing poems for 80 years. Isn’t that ridiculous? And I am still such a fan of John Donne.”
— Marie Ponsot
A native New Yorker, Marie Birmingham was born in Queens in the 1920s. From an early age, poetry has been a part of her life — her grandmother recited Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” each night at sunset and kept scrapbooks full of poems that she liked. After the end of World War II she moved to Paris for three years, a decision that altered the course of her life both personally and professionally. As fate would have it, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was on the same ship as she was during her Atlantic crossing. The two became friends on the voyage, and he would later publish her first book of poems, True Minds, on his City Lights Books press. During her time abroad she also met the French painter Claude Ponsot. The two married and lived together in Paris for a time, where they had their first child, Monique, who was soon followed by six sons. Ponsot and her husband moved back to New York and were divorced in 1970; “The kindest thing he ever did was to leave,” she said of Claude. She raised all seven children by herself.
The release of Ponsot’s True Minds in 1957 was overshadowed by the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which had been published the year before by City Lights. True Minds was number five in the Pocket Poets series, directly between Howl and Denise Levertov’s Here and Now. Only five-hundred copies were printed, and it is now very difficult to find. Ponsot said that True Minds “disappeared without a trace. Anybody who bought Howl would not be interested in what I was writing.” Despite this, Ponsot continued writing poems: “I worked late at night when the children had gone to bed,” she said, revising her poems “hundreds of times.” In a 2009 Vogue interview, Ponsot said “I did learn one great, crucial thing, though, that I think every writer should be taught: that you can always find ten minutes in the day to write.” It wasn’t until 1981 that Ponsot’s next book was published, making a twenty-four year gap between True Minds and Admit Impediment. This second collection was discovered by Marilyn Hacker, who became friends with Ponsot in New York, where they both taught. Hacker urged her to send the manuscript to Alice Quinn at Knopf and the rest is history.
Ponsot’s third collection, The Green Dark, was published in 1988, after which she retired from teaching to write full time. And it was her fourth collection that gained her the recognition she deserved: The Bird Catcher (1998) won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Since The Bird Catcher, Ponsot has published Springing: New and Selected Poems (2002), named “notable book of the year” by the New York Times Book Review, and Easy (2009), her most recent collection. In 2010 Ponsot suffered a stroke, losing speech and syntax, and “poems that she had been reciting from memory for the better part of a century ... disappeared.” But it was through recitation that Ponsot regained her speech, beginning with her sudden remembrance of the Lord’s Prayer — in Latin! You can read an account of this story here.
While rearing her children, Marie Ponsot translated over thirty-five books from French to English, including Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fairy Tale Book: a Selection of Twenty-Eight Traditional Stories from the French, German, Danish, Russian, and Japanese (1958) and Love & Folly: Selected Fables and Tales of LaFontaine (2002). She also wrote radio and television scripts, though she didn’t own a television set. With Rosemary Deen she co-authored two books on the fundamentals of writing, Beat Not the Poor Desk and Common Sense, which continue to be used in classrooms today. Ponsot taught in the graduate programs at Queens College for thirty years, as well as at Beijing United University, the Poetry Center of the YMHA, New York University, and, most recently, Columbia University. Her honors include the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize, a creative writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shaughnessy Medal of the Modern Language Association, and the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Society of America.
"Marie Ponsot is not only one of the most breathtaking musicians in language today, but her poetry reflects a deep wisdom as a writer and human being."
— David Yezzi (who will be delivering the Aiken Taylor lecture on Ponsot’s work, March 24, 2015)
Marie Ponsot is not afraid to write what she feels — and, at the same time, writes Dinitia Smith at the New York Times, “the poems have . . . a verbal precision and syntactical complexity. They are full of carefully thought out rhetorical strategies.” Her work has been compared to that of Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith, and Amy Clampitt, to name a few. David Orr, in his review of Springing, writes that “Ponsot has Plath’s strangeness without her single-mindedness.” He goes on to say that “she is a love poet, a metaphysician and a formalist,” and, “as tough as she is, though, Ponsot’s sensibility is generally quirky rather than caustic; like Stevie Smith or Amy Clampitt, she cultivates an eccentricity that allows her to get her points across on the sly.”
However, it is the beautiful language in Ponsot’s poems with which some critics and reviewers take issue. Her poetry has been called sentimental and exuberant, and not in a good way. It seems to me, though, that the critics have missed the point with Ponsot: her poetry is “supposed to be beautiful,” the poet herself said in a 1999 interview. “That’s a very unfashionable thing to say,” she went on. “So unfashionable. Transgressive.” I believe earnestness in Marie Ponsot’s poetry — earnestness in the root sense of the word, “resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction” — is the common quality in all of her finest poems. On the occasion of announcing the winner of the 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Christian Wiman, then editor of Poetry magazine, noted that “T. S. Eliot once said that modern poets had lost the ability to think and feel at the same time. If only he could have read Marie Ponsot! Her poems are marvels of intellectual curiosity and acuity, and they will also break your heart.”
The unflinching quality of Ponsot’s poetry coupled with her use and adaptation of traditional forms situate her firmly within the ranks of the great formalists like Marilyn Hacker, Philip Larkin, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. “I had been saying for 20 years that the abolishing of rhyme and heavier rhythms in poetry has led to hip-hop,” Ponsot says. “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 black-browed 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.”
Ponsot’s poems are “a great joy” to read. Take, for example, her poem “Anti-Romantic,” which was first published in Poetry magazine’s March 1958 issue, and later included in The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine. Here is the final stanza in this poem spoken by a tree:
I am variable, exquisite, tough,
Even useful; I am subtle; all this is enough.
I don’t want to be a temple, says the tree.
But if you don’t behave, I will be.
This is classic Ponsot: the language is direct, the emotions are spoken plainly, the poem plays with form — in this case, heroic couplets, for the most part — and the turn in the last sentence, as Wiman writes, “will break your heart.”
In much the same way as Larkin moves from mundane to transcendental moment in “High Windows,” Ponsot makes sense of what she sees on the streets of New York City and finds beauty and great joy in the commonplace. In “Jamaica Wildlife Center, Queens, New York” from The Green Dark (1988) the speaker is touring a wildlife center, but suddenly stops — in a moment reminiscent of Hopkins’s “The Windhover” (or even Jeffers) — to reflect:
I am a window that takes this in
like a door, or mouth.
I spit nothing out.
I wait — like the egrets,
egrets spread on distant trees
like a wash of table-linen
for the sun to dry.
In this poem a commonplace observance gives way to a moment of transcendence: “I transfigure / to the bite-sized images / intelligence eats & eats / eagerly.” The speaker’s interior state is frankly connected to the world represented by the egrets:
One by one, one is a leader, up
off the green dark
they go into sun.
They are coming this way
to lunch in the shallows.
I too am good at hunger;
it never deserts me.
This is poetry that thinks and feels . . . and smiles wryly—note the pun, desert/dessert.
Ponsot has said “Actually, for me, and I think for everybody . . . the subject does not matter. It’s absolutely not what the poem is. It’s what the poet makes of it that makes it a poem — what the poet’s language does with it.” And Ponsot’s poems, which so successfully wed formal construction with content, are slow deliberations. One reviewer writes that “other poets who use, as she does, short lines, a conversational pace, and frequent enjambments can feel rushed or wild. Ponsot instead tends to tread slowly.” Ponsot does indeed write conversationally, with frequent enjambment and often with short lines — but under the guise of these contemporary elements lie traditional forms and even some invented ones, like the tritina, a sort of half sestina that she invented. Ponsot says that writing in form “creates an almost bodily pleasure in the poet. What you’re doing is trying to discover. [The forms] are not restrictive. They pull things out of you. They help you remember.” Her poem “My Word is My Bond” from Springing (2002) is a fine example of how Ponsot utilizes form but, as Larkin does, in disguise. Here is the poem in full:
“The neighborhood’s older now
but it’s still
a valley between vaults of stone.
Your corner grocery’s gone.
When I walk there I never left there.
I haunt the place
where my honor died.
When you said
Now do you love me?
I picked up my ripped shirt
Ponsot says that her poems are supposed to be beautiful, and this one is — with its blending of the sonnet form and conversational language, its movement from the commonplace into a greater realization, its unerring honesty and clarity of speech. Ponsot’s poems deftly draw and then walk that line between earnestness and grandeur without ever tripping into sentimentality. In the poet’s own words from “Jamaica Wildlife Center”:
it is for — not of — myself,
it is for you
of the storage and freshness
of the life
The presentation of the Aiken Taylor Award to Marie Ponsot took place on Wednesday, March 25 at 4:30 p.m. in Convocation Hall, on the campus of the University of the South. It was followed by a reading of her poetry. On Tuesday evening, March 24 at 4:30 p.m., poet, editor, and critic David Yezzi (Johns Hopkins University, the New Criterion, and the Hopkins Review) gave a lecture on Ponsot’s poetic career in the McGriff Alumni House.
Previous Aiken Taylor Award Winners
1987 • Howard Nemerov (1920–1991)
1988 • Richard Wilbur (b. 1921)
1989 • Anthony Hecht (1923–2004)
1990 • W. S. Merwin (b.1927)
1991 • John Frederick Nims (1913–1993)
1992 • Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000)
1993 • George Starbuck (1931–1996)
1994 • Wendell Berry (b.1934)
1995 • Maxine Kumin (1925–2014)
1996 • Fred Chappell (b.1936)
1997 • Carolyn Kizer (b.1925)
1998 • X. J. Kennedy (b.1929)
1999 • George Garrett (1929–2008)
2000 • Eleanor Ross Taylor (1920–2011)
2001 • Frederick Morgan (1922–2004)
2002 • Grace Schulman (b.1935)
2003 • Daniel Hoffman (1923-2013)
2004 • Henry Taylor (b.1942)
2005 • B. H. Fairchild (b.1942)
2006 • Brendan Galvin (b.1938)
2007 • Anne Stevenson (b.1933)
2008 • John Haines (1924-2011)
2009 • Donald Hall (b.1928)
2010 • Louise Glück (b.1943)
2011 • Billy Collins (b. 1941)
2012 • Debora Greger (b.1949) click here to listen
2013 • William Logan (b. 1950) click here to listen
2014 • Dana Gioia (b. 1950)
2015 • Marie Ponsot (b. 1921) click here to listen