Beginning poets often go wrong with the tonal register of a modern sonnet, believing that the formal elements go hand in hand with heightened diction, when what the successful modern sonnet needs is a more conversational tone (“…you punk…”) to help readers relax.Even the ampersand, rather than the word “and,” helps the sonnet feel more comfortably modern. As many critics have pointed out, the poem is constructed with the very tools it rejects – it is an act of artifice (written in rhymed iambic tetrameter) but does not feel artificial.
Or maybe I’m projecting my own comfort level with odd career trajectories onto Ms. But after reading through interviews of Ponsot and studying her poems, and after meeting her myself a dozen years ago, my theory is this: The woman – who will turn 93 in May – has a preternatural ability to enjoy herself, no matter what the task.The word “preternatural” fits; Webster’s definition says it describes something “suspended between the mundane and the miraculous.” That fits Ponsot to a T. My small grandmother Bought from every peddler Less for the ribbons and lace Than for their scent Of sleep where you will, Walk out when you want, choose Your bread and your company.During those years, she divorced her husband, the French artist Claude Ponsot, and raised the children as a single parent.To support the family, she taught basic composition at Queens College and took on translation work, translating over 30 books from French into English.It happens / between her two ears.”) Instead, Ponsot breaks the back of the form. Well, sometimes relaxing the rhythm of a poem can be the sign of mastery – and right there within the poem, Ponsot explains it to us: “The rhythm’s complex /–like the longing to improvise.” It’s “her beat,” it’s “unexpected,” a little nod to her own improvisational skill.
I said that putting the photo of Ponsot with her children at the opening of this piece was risky.Ponsot’s ability to do this in poem after poem inspired the critic Angela O’Donnell to say, “As with the practiced athlete or dancer, she makes achieved grace seem natural….” Not only does Ponsot do well with received forms, she invents forms of her own.The tritina, a compressed form of the already-difficult sestina, is a case in point: LIVING ROOM The window’s old & paint-stuck in its frame. Broken windows cut, and let in the cold to sharpen house-warm air with outside cold that aches to buckle every saving frame & let the wind drive ice in through the break till chair cupboard walls stormhit all goods break. Following the rules for that form is groan-inducing, unless you do it, as Ponsot does, for pleasure. Come to think of it, that poem has some rhythmic patterns that make it sound almost Anglo-Saxon.As she talked, her passion and enthusiasm about this small object left me wondering whether I could keep up with her for the rest of the afternoon, though I was thirty years her junior. But her high energy level at the time was clear; that same energy beams out from this photo and the poem which follows it. You scare me, bragging you’re a double agent since jailers are prisoners’ prisoners too. Nor can many poets surprise us with rhyme as well as Ponsot.ONE IS ONE Heart, you bully, you punk, I’m wrecked, I’m shocked stiff. you still try to rule the world — though I’ve got you: identified, starving, locked in a cage you will not leave alive, no matter how you hate it, pound its walls, & thrill its corridors with messages. It’s the rhymed couplet at the end of this poem which rings like a bell and announces the fact that the poem is an Elizabethan sonnet.The adjective “undersung” attached to her name might be explained by the hyphenated adjective at the beginning of the biographical notes in Contemporary Authors Online: “In the course of her career, Ponsot has published several widely-spaced collections of her work…” [emphasis is mine]. Five children gathered around their mother, and all appear to be under seven or eight years old.