Pleasures cheap and dear

poem is against pillar next to honey pot


The Problem of Gratified Desire

by Marie Ponsot


If she puts honey in her tea

and praises prudence in the stirring up

she drinks, finally,

a drop of perfect sweetness

hot at the bottom of the cup.


There will be

pleasures more complex than it

(pleasure exchanged were infinite)

but none so cheap

more neat or definite.



I just came across a different version of Marie Ponsot’s “The Problem With Gratified Desire.” An earlier collection shows this poem with the line (She is 15 years old) under the title. The version I used, from 2016’s Collected Poems, deleted that. I wonder why the line was taken out. I like it. It adds a dimension I had missed before.


Now that I know the age of “she,” the future tense in the second stanza has a wistful air. A mother perhaps, observing her daughter drinking tea and seeing, all at once, loss and plenty, innocence and experience.


This poem reminds me of Thomas Lux’s “A Little Tooth,” both in its rhyme scheme that harkens back the childhood pleasures of listening to nursery rhymes, and the subject matter, which calls up the very adult pleasures and complications of sex.


“The Problem of Gratified Desire” is part of a set of poems dealing with proposed “problems.” Also in the series are the “Problem of Freedom and Commitment,” “The Problem of Loving-Kindness,” “The Problem of Fiction” (and five or six others), each “problem” connected to a particular age of the girl in the poem.


My question to you: Why is there subject-verb disagreement in this line—


(pleasure exchanged were infinite)


I don’t think it’s a typo. It appears that way in all versions.


I left the poem at the condiment station in a coffee shop in Chicago.


Here’s a biography of Marie Ponsot from an earlier posting. Important to note that shortly after I wrote it, Ponsot won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. At the ripe old age of 91!


Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.


Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.


Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.


As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.


The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.


  1. Patricia Rawlings

    OK–I have to admit it–I read this poem while in a sexy frame of mind—maybe it had to do with Halloween, to me a sexy season.

    To me this lovely little poem could have been about many things but, guided by that word “exchanged” in line eight, I read it to be about self-pleasuring vs. sexual pleasure derived from intimacy with another.

    The tea-drinker—the “stirring up” self-pleasurer—with her sense of economy, her “prudence,” will be guaranteed “finally,” with the addition of honey, the “perfect sweetness”: orgasm. Pleasure will be tidy, free, and guaranteed, vying with the “more complex” but not so neat, not necessarily so cheap, and oh-not-so-definite other type: pleasure derived from sex with another.

    I took the “were” in “pleasure exchanged were infinite” to be referring to the subjunctive form of the verb “to be,” i.e. the wishful-thinking “were” (as in “If it were true.”)

    The curiosity for me lies in the title. What exactly is the problem? What’s problematic about desire gratified—or so great about the other kind?

    Maybe she means that the assuredness that comes with self-obtained gratification has a mechanical quality (and maybe good reason for it!).

    And unshared pleasure, although “hot,” is reduced from the “infinite” to “a drop.”

    As for messiness, I’m reminded of one of the latest trends, the tidiness trend, with its evocation of cold astringencies and flavorless neatness stripped of personality. Non-messy can also be sterile.

    And that word “prudence.” To me it doesn’t belong with “pleasure.” Frugality can be a practical thing—but when it comes to sex, or tea, does it merit “praise”? In its place it can be positive—but it can also imply stinginess.

    I wrote the above before remembering Ponsot’s line “She is 15 years old” below the title. Now I wonder at my interpretation because 15 is pretty young to be having all these concerns! Then again maybe she’s just a very precocious nubile nymphetl!

    1. poemelf

      I think you’re right about the subjunctive tense but I’m still having trouble making sense of that syntax.

      As always, a very idiosyncratic and insightful reading from you! Thank you, you open up poems like soup cans.

      “Prudence” is an odd word here….but it does add a nursery rhyme bounciness that highlights the girl’s youth….Praises prudence in the stirring up….and the tidiness of that action contrasts with the messier pleasures to come and is reinforced by the “neat” description of the action at the end.

      Can’t you just see someone observing her, this girl so self-satisfied (although not at this moment in the way you describe) with her neat little rituals of tea-drinking….(I have many myself, and yes, they are satisfying)….and thinking ahead to this girl in the throes of passion?

      Might be interesting to read all the poems in this series and see if they shed more light on this 15 year old and the idea of “problems.”

  2. 1honestpoet

    I read Marie Ponsot’s collection “True Minds” until it fell to pieces. Then I bought another, and another: Every poem spoke to me as I prepared to leave my bad marriage.

    She had survived a bad marriage too. And every kind of love. The poems were windows into a woman’s consciousness–brave, solitary, intelligent, and funny. Not to forget her extraordinary gift for the sonnet.

    But I don’t wish she were more famous. If she were the type to be popular, she wouldn’t be her type at all.

      1. 1honestpoet

        I imagine many readers respond personally to her poems. Hers are utterly personal without being in the least self-indulgent. (There’s no off-putting vanity or pretense to contend with.)

        After teaching generously for decades, she must have many admirers; and her verses make friends of readers too.

        Also, it would be difficult to draw a line between the person and the poet, since her voice is both intimate and frank.

        Forms such as sonnets and tritinas may be artifices she has fun with, but there is nothing artificial about what she says and stands for. She has a stake in what she writes.

  3. Patricia Rawlings

    It would be interesting to read her other ‘problem’ poems and see what they reveal.

    For me the poem and its title seem at cross-purposes, and I want to resolve them–take one out or take out the other one! ‘The problem of’ is a provocative challenge–where in the poem, with its simplicity of language, its rhyming, its surface smoothness, its lilting, almost sing-song-y tone is there any hint of a problem? What can that mean? I’m so intrigued by this poem I’m not satisfied with what I wrote above now at all. I think now that I “resolved” it by making it symmetrical and neat and tidy–tit for tat and tat for tit.

    I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poems that are like little riddles and puzzles and teases and surprises. The deceptive and calculated simplicity. Never two readings–even done within the space of an hour!–the same.

    So you might hear from me again! This is not the end!

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