Marie Ponsot’s Poetic and Epistemic Rhythms

Kyler Schubkegel

Kyler Schubkegel is 2nd-year Ph.D. student in English at the University of Notre Dame with a focus on 20th-century American literature. He was a recipient of the Rose Library Short-Term Award Fellowship, which he used to research in the Marie Ponsot papers.

I had the great privilege of spending three weeks at the Rose Library this summer combing through the papers of Marie Ponsot (1921-2019), an American poet little-known among popular or scholarly audiences but well-received, respected, and even loved by fellow poets and dozens of former students. Ponsot spent nearly her entire life living in New York City, but she also sustained a lifelong love affair with French language and culture that blossomed into many visits, income from translation work, and a marriage to Claude Ponsot, a French painter who gave her seven children before leaving the family apparently without warning. Ponsot’s poems are indelibly marked by her failed marriage and by her devotion to motherhood, as well as her Francophilia, academic training in English Renaissance poetry, and fascination with language itself as both a material and an intellectual activity.

Portrait of Marie Ponsot in her kitchen in the morning. Queens, New York. April 23, 1988. (Photo by Michel Delsol/Getty Images)

My research makes an implicit case for expanding Ponsot’s readership (look her up at!) by tracking her location in influential networks of postwar American poets and artists, a project that encounters inflexible limitations in digital modes because so little scholarship or criticism has engaged her work at all, let alone taken up her personal archive. My interest in Ponsot grew from a single poem, “Pathetic Fallacies Are Bad Science But,” to consider the role of sound, music, rhythm, timing, and complex relationships between affect and cognition in her poetic practice more broadly. I came to the Rose Library wondering if these elements might inflect her many poems about nature in something like a nascently posthumanist direction, in an otherwise resolutely humanist (even classicist) corpus. The library’s holdings were essential to my developing understanding on all these counts!

I began with the many drafts of the poem that first drew me to Ponsot, and I was intrigued to find not only pre-publication manuscripts but several handwritten iterations of three different poems that eventually morphed into the single published piece. These earlier drafts suggest an ecological or even cosmological reading more directly than the later versions, confirming my intuition that her interest in affect (in this case, an affective connection with a bird) can be read with an eye towards relationality beyond the human. This is a thread I plan to trace through more of her published work in future research, and I anticipate that the drafts will play a central role in this interpretive work.

The many folders of correspondence preserved in Ponsot’s collection were also particularly illuminating. The folders document Ponsot’s interaction with a whole constellation of women poets who shaped American literature in significant ways in the 1980s and 1990s especially: the likes of Marilyn Hacker, Carolyn Kizer, and Jean Valentine, among many others. The significance of Ponsot’s archive in understanding her own understudied role in these networks cannot be overestimated, and it is perfectly encapsulated in her sparse but significant correspondence with Sharon Olds – another central figure among 20th-century American women poets. One letter from Olds asks Ponsot to help organize a poetry series presented by Womanbooks, one of the first feminist bookstores in New York City, and it is accompanied by a transcript of Ponsot’s public remarks at Womanbooks during a 1980 retrospective celebration honoring the work of Muriel Rukeyser.[1] These are, to my knowledge, the only existing documentation of Ponsot’s involvement with these activities.

The collection also impacted my impression of Ponsot’s interest in literary and linguistic activity seen from an almost anthropological point of view, i.e. as cultural activities that make us human. In handwritten notes on Margo Berdeshevsky’s 2007 poetry collection But a Passage in Wilderness, for example, Ponsot muses, “Poetry is as old as language. Each human animal has a personal part of a mother tongue and is self-defined by its use.”[2] Ponsot also spoke frequently in published interviews about her fascination with language acquisition in infants, including her own children, and this makes a suggestive context for a handwritten note from the archive that reflects on her decades of teaching: “the biggest thing I learned . . . is that human beings like work,” or purposeful activity.[3] Her comment could refer equally to the work of motherhood or poetry, the two great labors of her life. These findings helped me to realize new ways that Ponsot’s work intersects meaningfully with contemporary conversations about the very heart and future of literary study. For example, recent work by scholars like John Guillory attempts to face an increasingly posthuman world by taking the best of the “humanities” along, such as a critique of our society’s atomization and a renewed devotion to intrinsically valuable labor.

Marie Ponsot (New York Times)

Finally, the archive supplied a more fleshed-out picture of Ponsot’s relationship to her own Roman Catholicism, a faith she observed throughout her life. Beyond hundreds of handwritten devotional poems in her notebooks, I also discovered a script (authored by Ponsot) for one of the early episodes of ABC’s decades-long show Directions, and the script’s clear preoccupation with the history of language as a cultural medium has prompted me to wonder about North American Catholicism’s contribution to an interest in media studies among many midcentury humanities scholars. For example, Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan was famously a Catholic convert, and the Jesuit priest Walter Ong not only wrote extensively about orality and literacy but also chaired the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 1978. My trip to the Rose Library confirmed that Ponsot read works by both figures, and her reading notes foreground the role of sensory experience (especially touch and tactility) in mediating intellectual life. I am still working to draw conclusions, but this strange midcentury Catholic intellectual lineage may provide an entirely new context in which to read sound, rhythm, and affect (by way of Ponsot’s work) as affordances of poetry-as-cultural-medium.

I am sincerely grateful for the chance to access these documents, which have a nuanced story to tell about the history of postwar American poetry – and especially, the reformist roles played by networks of feminist artists that we are still unearthing even now in 2023. Ponsot’s poetic rhythms and affects may speak more directly to our moment as well, while we probe what literary arts offer us in continuing to understand our ecological embeddedness. On a personal note, I feel closer to Ponsot in ways that would not have been possible without handling these documents for myself. Time spent in the archive made her silence about her failed marriage in personal notebooks and correspondence all the more resounding, but it also underscored how beloved she remains among surviving friends and students. Many thanks to the Rose Library for preserving this record of Ponsot’s intellectual life, social network, and continuing

[1] Transcript of Muriel Rukeyser Celebration at Womanbooks, April 9, 1980, Correspondence, 1960-1989, box 11, folder 3, Marie Ponsot Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[2] “Margo,” handwritten note, no date, “Berdeshevsky” and other notes, box 7, folder 8, Marie Ponsot Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

[3] Untitled Note on Teaching, no date, Notebooks, 1989, box 18, folder 1, Marie Ponsot Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.