Marie Ponsot, poet and winner of National Book Critics Circle Award, dies at 98

NEW YORK — After a promising start as a published poet in the 1950s, Marie Ponsot put her career aside. She was a single mother in New York City, with seven children to raise. But she did not stop writing. She filled notebooks with her poems — and then stashed much of her work in a drawer, showing it strictly to friends.

It would be almost a quarter-century before her poetry began to reemerge, and when it did, she found wide acclaim.

By the end of her long life — she died Friday at 98 — Ms. Ponsot had translated dozens of books, published seven volumes of poetry, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She died at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in Manhattan, her daughter, Monique, said.


Ms. Ponsot was first published in the 1950s by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — the Yonkers-born poet who championed the Beat poets from his celebrated San Francisco bookstore, City Lights — in the same series as Allen Ginsberg.

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The two had become friends in Paris, where Ms. Ponsot met her future husband, Claude Ponsot, a painter, while she was studying at the Sorbonne.

Although Ms. Ponsot came under Ferlinghetti’s wing, she hardly wrote in the freewheeling personal style of Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and other Beats.

“Ponsot is a love poet, a metaphysician and formalist,” David Orr wrote in The New York Times in 2002 in a review of “Springing,” a volume of her collected poems. “But she is neither sappy nor tedious nor predictable.”

Her first book, “True Minds,” was studded with love poems to her husband. Its title echoed the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments.”


Ms. Ponsot harked back to “True Minds” when she resumed publishing in 1981: For the title of her second collection, she again drew from Sonnet 116’s opening line, calling the volume “Admit Impediment.” By then she, and her poetry, had been tempered by divorce and years of single motherhood.

The collection’s opening poem, “For a Divorce,” announces what had befallen those “true minds” of 1956. Addressing Claude Ponsot, it begins:

Death is the price of life.

Lives change places.

Asked why

we ever married, I smile

and mention the arbitrary fierce

glance of the working artist

that blazed sometimes in your face

but can’t picture it.

“Admit Impediment” had come together with the help of a friend and professor, Marilyn Hacker, who took the manuscript to the Knopf offices in Manhattan, where it found its way to poetry editor Alice Quinn. She immediately accepted it for publication.

“Admit Impediment” was followed in 1988 by a third collection, “The Green Dark,” and in 1998 by another, “The Bird Catcher,” which brought her the National Book award.

“Marie is a classic writer,” Quinn said in an 2012 interview. “When you read her, you feel the strain of Donne and Hopkins, of someone truly immersed in the English tradition. But here were poems about her mother, about marriage and divorce, about motherhood. She was reckoning with a full life of responsibility. Her work showed kinship with others under stress.”


Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of Ms. Ponsot’s heroes. She often spoke of her Roman Catholic faith and in verse paid homage to Hopkins, a Victorian-era Jesuit priest. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Harvard professor and critic Stephanie Burt compared Ms. Ponsot to Hopkins in her endeavoring “to see in each plant, each animal, each sort of weather, a unique instance of Providence.”

When Deborah Garrison, who replaced Quinn at Knopf, began planning a collected works in the late 1990s, she said, she was overwhelmed by Ms. Ponsot’s unpublished stash.

“They’d been in a drawer,” Garrison said, “but were sparklingly fresh.”

Marie Birmingham was born April 6, 1921, in Brooklyn to William and Marie Candee Birmingham. Her mother was a New York City public-school teacher, her father an importer.

Marie attended St. Joseph’s College for Women in Brooklyn before earning a master’s degree in 17th-century literature at Columbia University in 1941.

During World War II, she lived in the West Village in Manhattan and worked at a Doubleday bookstore until a car hit her and fractured her femur. After recuperating, Ms. Ponsot and a friend sailed for postwar Paris, where she worked as a UN archivist.

Ferlinghetti, too, was studying there, and the two lent each other books and shared poems. In Paris she met modernist writer Djuna Barnes as well as Julia Child. She also met Claude Ponsot, who was studying painting with Fernand Léger, in a bar.

After marrying and having a daughter, the Ponsots, with a second child on the way, returned to the United States in 1950 and moved in with Ms. Ponsot’s parents in Queens. Claude Ponsot did not speak English and worked sporadically. Marie Ponsot supported the family through freelance translating and writing for radio.

She also pursued poetry. By the mid-1950s, Ferlinghetti had established the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and begun publishing a series of poetry books. He accepted Ms. Ponsot’s “True Minds” as the fifth in the series, after Ginsberg’s revolutionary “Howl and Other Poems.”

By 1961 Ms. Ponsot was raising seven children while teaching at Queens College, and her marriage was dissolving. The divorce was finalized in 1970. With her parents’ help, she acquired a Victorian house in Queens and developed a writing regimen.

“I wrote 10 minutes a day,” she said. “I did it as if it were commandment.”

In addition to her daughter, Monique, she leaves six other children, Denis, Antoine, William, Christopher, Matthew and Gregory; 16 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.