from a Conversation with Molly Peacock


FOX: Many poets have talked about music or jazz as being akin to poetry. It seems to me in terms of expressing emotion, maybe it’s easier in music, or painting, than it is in words.

PEACOCK: Well, music is perhaps the most purely emotional art in that it doesn’t have to “articulate” anything. And painting creates the image. And those are two arts that I feel are tucked inside poetry. When we talk about the vision of the poet, we can liken that to painting, and that’s where we get ideas of word-painting. The music of the poem is—well, there are two musics in the poem: there’s the music of the line, which I think of as like a baseline—if we’re still in the jazz mode—so there’s that baseline going; and then there’s the music of the sentence, quite separate, it’s prose music. People who only pay attention to the music of the sentence get accused of writing chopped-up prose, but there is a distinct sentence music that unfolds over the lines. Those rhythms—the base-line rhythm beneath each line as well as the rhythm of the sentence wrapping around the lines—combine to create deep emotional states. And sometimes, as poets, we’re not even aware of what those emotional states really are. And the imagery—when we talk about the vision of a poet, I think actually we’re talking about a poet’s imagery. When we say, “Wallace Stevens’ vision” or “William Carlos Williams’ vision” or “Elizabeth Bishop’s vision” or “Sonia Sanchez’s vision,” I think we’re largely talking about what they envision in their imagery.

FOX: You’re known as a new formalist—

PEACOCK: Yeah…[laughs]

FOX: [laughing] Why do you laugh at that?

PEACOCK: [laughing] At this point I feel a little bit like an old formalist! But, yes.

FOX: Well, how does formalism enter into your writing for you, in terms of the vision, the imagery, all that?

PEACOCK: I’m a psychological formalist, how’s that? My interest in formal poetry started because I began with too-hot-to-handle subject matter. I was in psychological states that were just flooding me with feeling and language, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t want just to vomit something out on a page, yet I wanted to write deeply personally. I wasn’t interested in abstraction at all when I started off writing. I just was too consumed by feeling. So that’s what drew me to formal boundaries. Because I thought, if I knew how to use formal devices, then I could infuse them with what I was feeling and thinking, and I would be making art at the same time. I wanted to make art, and for me, a formal poem is an art object, just because of the level of precision. And when I see a sculpture, say, a brass sculpture that is highly polished, or a sanded wood sculpture that someone sanded again and again and again, hundreds of times returning to it to get that surface—that’s the kind of art object that I’m talking about.

And I should tell you that my sensibility is extremely visual, as you’ve no doubt figured out by my analogies—I’m starting off with a paint chip, for crying out loud! As a child I drew and painted, but words, I suppose, the articulation of something, became more important to me. But I’ve always had a lust for the visual, and my thinking tends toward the image.

Another aspect of formal poetry that drew me to it is that it ensured a kind of musicality. And formal poetry also addressed the inadequacies I felt about class. I’m a working-class girl from Buffalo, New York. I’m the first person in my family to go to college. I wanted to write “real poetry” and someone from a more sophisticated background would’ve understood that they could’ve broken all kinds of boundaries in poetry, but I wanted to be certified as a real poet and to me that meant the poets that you read in school—where else did I read them? They certainly weren’t at home; no one there was talking about them. So, that meant Keats. John Donne. It meant—it’s bizarre to call Keats a formalist; he did what he did as a poet, not a so-called formalist. But I thought I needed to be able to do that. Then I’d be real. And then if I wanted to throw verse structures away, of course I could do it later, when I’d become grand and sophisticated and educated and I could through it all away. But I felt like I had to learn it first.

FOX: Isn’t that kind of like an artist learning the classical-style perspective, then they can go to abstract if they want to—

PEACOCK: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. I think it’s just like studying figuration—all that Renaissance gray under-painting before they put the color on, stuff like that. We’re always connecting with the past, and one of the ways we connect with the past is through technique. And this is also psychological for me as well. You cannot choose your family. You’re given your family. But as you become an artist, specifically a poet, you choose your poetic family. You get to discover your literary aunts and uncles and the writers you’re related to. And it can be a very disparate family. The older you get, the larger the family becomes, and the more you read, the more poets you encounter from around the world, or poets you rediscover and discover that they were part of your family after all—the interconnectedness is part of what draws me to formal technique.

FOX: Wouldn’t it be fair to say also that you find you can better communicate that flood of emotion through more formal imagery than another way?

PEACOCK: Well, it’s not exactly that the imagery is formal. It’s that the rhythms of the language and the sound system is formal. That’s really what it is. And then the imagery can be bizarre. I have a poem called “Anger Sweetened” in which there’s a bizarre image of a candied grasshopper (like chocolate ants only this is a grasshopper dripping with sweet). It’s a terrifying image, and when it came into my head, I thought, Ugh, this horrifies me. But it horrified me so much that I had to go for it. And I realized that it was an image of holding back your anger and kind of candying your words, and I ended up writing a sonnet about that called “Anger Sweetened.” That’s an example—I mean the image is bizarre, it’s not a “formal image,” it’s almost like a film image or something inside the formal poem.

FOX: Is what you’re trying to get at a deeper communication than we normally would have in a social setting?

PEACOCK: I’m interested in the surfaces of things, but I’m not interested in the superficial. [laughs]

FOX: Ah, what’s the distinction?

PEACOCK: By surfaces I might mean I’m interested in—how can I say—the textures of life. The glass texture, or the texture of fabric, and that’s social fabric as well, but I’m not so interested in being— There’s a wonderful kind of art that comes from a chattiness that makes an art of superficiality—that I adore—but it’s not me. Even though I’m a hearty laugher and my poems can be quite funny, at root they’re about some bell that resounds deep inside me that’s serious.

from Rattle #32, Winter 2009

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