Thursday, August 4, 2011

A true story

I’m excited to be part of this blogging community. It gets quiet at my house and this on-going conversation will be like stepping across the street into a writers' coffee shop.

We weren't at a coffee shop, but my daughter Sarah, also a writer, and I were having a conversation last weekend. She told me the story of Marie Ponsot. It’s a story to file away for some day when you just feel not up to the task.

Marie Ponsot is a poet. Her first book of poems, "True Minds," was published in 1957, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but it was overshadowed by Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl," published at about the same time. She did not publish another poetry collection for 24 years. In 1999, when she was 77 years old, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book "The Bird Catcher."

In May, 2010, at the age of 89 Marie Ponsot suffered a stroke. According to an article in the New York Times, "her brain had been ransacked.”

On the fourth day after her stroke she said to her doctor—one of her earliest utterances—“Doctor, I need help.” The doctor replied, "What do you want me to help you with?”


The doctor told her to talk, talk about what she loved, talk with everyone, talk as much as she could. And then to listen. The doctor also told her to read, read out loud, to ask friends to read to her.

She talked and she read, talked and read. She listened while friends read and talked some more. She was aphasic. She said "table" when she meant "chair," "year," when she meant "hour."

Now, she has regained speech. I don’t speak with her of course, but she appeared on a panel in November of 2010 and was articulate and moving. (If you are interested in Marie Ponsot’s story you might want to take the time to watch, but you don’t need to start until at least 14 minutes in).

“I am lucky,” she said, but of course there was the talking and the reading and the listening. She is coming back. She said on that same panel that she hadn't started really working on poetry but she is on a regimen of prose writing for at least an hour a day. Perhaps by now she's writing poetry again.

There is so much that I love about this story. The lifetime of writing because it gave her pleasure, the acclaim that eventually came, the persistence--sheer determination-- after the ransacking. It stiffens my spine. I hope it will do the same for you.


  1. I love it. So stories save us. We need to tell them to each other. Again and again.

  2. Her story is so great. And so is she, still really vital and just who she is--one tough poet.

  3. Jackie what an incredible story that is. I'm so glad I found the video link here. FYI, I've posted on this at the new VCFA MFA faculty blog: or if that doesn't work,

  4. Thank you, Jackie, for reminding us of the gift of our daily lives - just to put words together. This story reminds me of the book My Stroke of Insight, written by the Harvard scientist who recovered from a stroke and the power of the right brain to help us out, along with the left.

    Welcome, Cheryl, Jackie and Mellissa. Your posts have brought new energy already to our community.

  5. Her story stiffens my spine and makes me weep. Thank you for telling us her story, Jackie.

  6. Oh, what an inspiring story, Jackie! Marie Ponsot is a courageous woman. And we all have much to learn from her. Thank you for sharing her story, a story that needs to be told.

    So happy you're blogging this semester! :0)

  7. I'm glad if you all found this story as moving as I did. I hope you'll have time to find her reading one of her poems on Youtube. She's really quite remarkable.

    And Uma, thanks for re-posting on the VCFA MFA faculty blog. I love the notion of cross-pollination.

  8. Jackie, I love that idea too. It makes sense, as we're all doing the same work, building the same kinds of writing communities. We've also added a link to this blog in our sidebar, to encourage more "cross-pollination." Cheers.