This week, eminent New York-based poet Marie Ponsot won the 2013 $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. What a well deserved honor for a masterly writer and supremely kind person. Since the 1980s, when Marie was into her sixties, she has published multiple award-winning books of poetry. At 91 she is a true role model.
About ten years ago, when I was getting an MFA in poetry at Columbia, I was fortunate enough to take a workshop with Marie. I remember that her rule for students was simple: say something positive. Ponsot’s point was that every piece of writing has something good in it. If you identify it, you help the writer build from a place of strength. Marie is an unflinching critic, but she wanted us to find the things that shine in a poem.
Looking back at Marie’s philosophy, I can see that it comes from someone who genuinely likes young people and teaching. Rather than knocking aspiring writers down, Ponsot builds them up. As a teacher myself who aims to be both critical and encouraging, I appreciate Ponsot's method.
It is not well known that, in addition to her poetry, Marie has written a book for teachers. Beat Not the Poor Desk is for those of us who teach writing. Ponsot offers great advice in it, including how to instruct argumentation. I use her technique quite a bit, particularly regarding the shape of an argument. Marie and her co-author Rosemary Deen believe that most arguments form certain basic shapes, such as: “You may think X, but my experience tells me Y.” I have told many students this and it helps demystify the process for them.
Marie shows such respect for students and teachers. She was advocating student-centered teaching long before it was in vogue, urging teachers to meet students where they are and use their own experience as material for writing practice.
Marie’s poetry highlights this humanism. Here is an excerpt from the poem "Pathetic Fallacies Are Bad Science But" from her 2003 collection Springing:
To see clear, resist the drag of images.
Take nature as it is, not Dame nor Kind.
Act in events; touch what you name. Abhor
easy obverts of natural metaphor.
Let human speech breathe out its best poor bridges
from mind to world, mind to self, mind to mind.