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.