Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Slowest Poet I Know

Several years ago, in one of many moments of wavering between getting a doctorate or making something of myself, I signed up for a poetry class with Marie Ponsot. She spent a good part of the first session introducing us to each other through our work : she read one of each of our submissions. It was kind of excruciating, for Marie is the slowest poet I know. A line break occasions a moment of silence and reflection; a period allows one to go out and grab a cuppa. Yet in the course of ten sessions with her and some very nice fellow-travelers, I came to appreciate her velocity.

For Marie, poetry is an art of attentiveness. In part, she means fixating on detail, as in her poem "Explorers Cry out Unheard"

What I have in mind is the last wilderness.

I sweat to learn its heights of sun, scrub, ants,
its gashes full of shadows and odd plants
as inch by inch it yields to my hard press.

Marie wanted us to take in each tuft, clod, and moss-heap and turn them into bricks of language, foundations for saying the things she believed each of us had a god-given need to say.

What she had to say usually involved the ways the things of the world held not only poetry together, but also bound her to the rest of us:

And the way behind me changes as I advance.
If interdependence shapes the biomass,
though I plot my next steps by pure chance
I can't go wrong. Even willful deviance
connects me to all the rest. The changing past
includes and can't excerpt me…

Marie's technique of teaching attentiveness was aural. She insisted that our first encounters with each other's poetry come through listening. The parts of the poem that were heard most clearly – that was the heart of what we had to say to each other. And so we spent a semester reading aloud, listening, telling each other what we heard.

Marie believed in metrics, and found cadences everywhere. One evening she arrived in class late; she'd seen a dance performance. The dancers had chanted as they moved, clapping in rhythms that Marie identified in the manner of the Greeks: anapests, iambs, troches. In the way that a certain frequency of energy can destroy a bridge, she thought these collections of stress could kick you, beautiful and terrible.

Marie's teaching seldom made individual poems better. Instead, she made us better poets. She encouraged silliness, formal bravado, improbable corralling of verbs. She could make a poem turn in on its own logical underpinnings. Take the aforementioned explorers:

… Memory grants
just the nothing it knows, and my distress
drives me toward the imagined truths I stalk,
those savages.

This interconnectedness thing may not be all it's cracked up to be. What is it that I think I'm seeking, and how will I know when I find it?

It's the kind of improbable yet logical reversal Marie loves, and she comes about it slowly, in due time, giving each vowel its luxuriant breath, until, sometimes abruptly, she stops:

… Warned by their haunting talk,
their gestures, I guess they mean no. Or yes.

And here is this thing undone. This aged lady, crossing the street at a geologic pace, has just shot herself and her readers with a dart poisoned with god knows what root, and that, of course, is the reason the explorers cry out unheard.

To undo what you have done, to take risks with words, to listen for the separate cadences of keyboards, city buses, elms, or Pop Rocks, to say precisely what you have to say: that slowness is what Marie taught. Or, summed up in a single sentence (mantra, motto, prophesy):

"English is more powerful than you are."

Thanks to islandtime for reminding me.


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