After publishing her first book of poetry, a 1956 collection that Lawrence Ferlinghetti released as part of the same pocket-size series that featured Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Marie Ponsot set aside her career to raise her seven children.
Divorcing from her husband, she supported the family as a translator, writer for radio and television, and college professor, carving out at least 10 minutes each day to write. While changing diapers and preparing dinners, she scribbled lines of poetry on notebooks, napkins and the backs of envelopes, ultimately filling the drawers of her desk with completed poems.
But for years she insisted she was not a “poet,” merely a person who wrote poetry. “I never had a strong desire to publish a book,” she told the New York Times in 1999. “I had a strong desire to write poems.” She added: “I see now that was queer. I didn’t realize that is a big part of what a poet has to do. I was too busy to sit around and think about it.”
At the encouragement of a friend, poet Marilyn Hacker, Ms. Ponsot finally published a second book, “Admit Impediment, ” 25 years after her first. She went on to release five more collections of elegant, formally dexterous poetry, crafting lyrical verses about the sea, the stars and her own daily life as a mother in New York.
In the years before her death at 98, on July 5 at a hospital in Manhattan, Ms. Ponsot was increasingly recognized as one of the most distinctive poets of her generation. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 1998 collection “The Bird Catcher,” was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and in 2013 was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $100,000 lifetime-achievement honor from the Poetry Foundation.
Reflecting on Ms. Ponsot’s work, the poet and critic Susan Stewart once wrote: “What she has written of her relation to the night sky — ‘it becomes the infinite / air of imagination that stirs immense / among losses and leaves me less desolate’ — could be claimed by her readers as a description of her own work, which pulls us always to forms of thought and attention that surprise and enlarge and cheer us.”
In addition to her poetry, Ms. Ponsot (pronounced pon-SO) translated more than 30 books from French into English, including the fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Her own verse often drew on classical forms such as the villanelle, sestina, tritina and sonnet, and sometimes incorporated references to ancient mythology and medieval legend.
But for all its traditionalist trappings, her work was neither old-fashioned nor impenetrable. In poems such as “One Is One,” a sonnet from “The Bird Catcher,” she wrote with a conversational tone and sometimes jarring colloquialisms:
Heart, you bully, you punk, I’m wrecked, I’m shocked
stiff. You? 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.
Ms. Ponsot drew inspiration in part from long walks across New York City, where she jotted down notes that turned into full-length poems. Working by hand, she recopied and revised each piece hundreds of times — “until it begins to speak to me,” she once said, “changing or reaffirming what’s there.”
Much of her work chronicled motherhood and romance, including her marriage and divorce from French painter Claude Ponsot. Her literary debut, “True Minds,” was filled with love poems to her husband, and took its name from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.” (The same poem provided the title for her second, darker work.)
“I really feel she was outside of literary style and fashion,” said poet and Knopf editor Deborah Garrison, who worked with Ms. Ponsot on her last three collections. “She really made her own sound — she wasn’t a Beat, wasn’t a confessional poet, but was kind of her own thing,” with a “jaunty” style in which words were “spun together and turned upside down,” notably in the opening lines of “A Rune, Interminable”:
Go to a wedding
as to a funeral:
bury the loss.
Go to a funeral
as to a wedding:
marry the loss.
The oldest of two children, Marie Estelle Birmingham was born in Queens on April 6, 1921, and raised in the borough’s Jamaica Estates neighborhood. Her mother was a fourth-grade schoolteacher; her father imported wine, Champagne and Cuban cigars; and a grandmother filled scrapbooks with poems, encouraging a love of language in Marie.
By 6, she had published her first poem, which appeared in a children’s column of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. She graduated from St. Joseph’s College for Women in Brooklyn in 1940 and studied 17th-century literature at Columbia University, receiving a master’s degree in 1941.
On a ship to Paris after World War II, Ms. Ponsot met Ferlinghetti, the poet and publisher who later founded City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, a West Coast haven for the Beats. The connection proved a mixed blessing: Although Ferlinghetti published her debut, it came right on the heels of “Howl,” an experimental work of rage and terror that bore little resemblance to Ms. Ponsot’s poetry.
“Mine disappeared without a trace,” she later told the Times. “Anybody who bought ‘Howl’ would not be interested in what I was writing.”
In the years before publication, Ms. Ponsot did postgraduate work in Paris, where she met her future husband, a student of artists Fernand Léger and André Lhote. They married in 1948, returned to the United States after the birth of their first child and divorced in 1970, in the midst of Ms. Ponsot’s retreat from publishing.
“My dissociation from the idea of publication was not deliberate, contemptuous or passive-aggressive; it just didn’t occur to me,” she told Bomb magazine in 2003. “Think of all those 17th-century cavalier poets who had no interest in publishing their work — it didn’t occur to them either.”
From 1966 until her retirement in 1991, Ms. Ponsot taught English and creative writing at Queens College in New York. She continued teaching for nearly two decades more at New York institutions including NYU, Columbia, the New School and the 92nd Street Y.
Ms. Ponsot’s poetry collections included “The Green Dark” (1988), “Springing: New and Selected Poems” (2002), “Easy” (2009) and “Collected Poems” (2016), which spanned 60 years of writing. With a Queens College colleague, Rosemary Deen, she also wrote a guide to teaching writing, “Beat Not the Poor Desk” (1982), and a guide to expository writing, “The Common Sense” (1985).
Ms. Ponsot suffered a stroke in 2010 that wiped poems from her memory and left her battling aphasia. Her daughter, Monique Ponsot, said Ms. Ponsot died soon after being hospitalized with difficulty speaking. A death certificate has not yet been issued, she said.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include six sons, more than a dozen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Ms. Ponsot often described writing as essentially a form of pleasure, and offered a kind of poetry manifesto in “Cometing,” from “Easy”:
I like to drink my language in
straight up, no ice no twist no spin
— no fruity phrases, just unspun
words trued right toward a nice
idea, for chaser. True’s a risk.
Take it I say. Do true for fun.