September 22, 2018


The force of poetry known as Molly Peacock has brushed my life in several ways over the years, most recently in her thoughtful and moving essay "The Plexiglass Wall and the Vital Verb," from Judith Scherer Herz's 2017 anthology John Donne and Contemporary Poetry (Palgrave). (This anthology brings together essays and poems by scholars and poets in surprising and wonderfully resonant ways -- highly recommended.) Molly graciously and generously agreed to explore with me some of the various paths that brought her to poetry, that essay, and beyond.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry, or it to you? 

MOLLY PEACOCK: About the year 1200, a speaker of Old French wanted to separate the distinctive from the ordinary, something beyond the general category of species (kind or form).  The word especial was born.

About 1955, an eight-year-old girl, the first-born in her working-class family in Buffalo, New York, was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.  Teacher?  Nurse? Answer: Something special.  Especial.

That was the beginning of poetry for her—well, for me, though it’s she I see though the telescope of seven decades. I was a girl for whom the forces of class, nature, socialization, and politics (that is, sexism and classism) were a great obscuring gale.  All I knew was:  I wanted to be.  To see.  (And be seen.)

People complain that poetry is sidelined in schools, but to that girl, poetry was special because it was sidelined.  It came at the end of the school year, always after the winter gales; it wasn’t graded; you could let your imagination spark words you’d never say aloud; and utter truths you couldn’t say aloud except in metaphor.  Poetry was small.  You didn’t even have to turn the page!  Giving up picture books with just a few words on them for more grownup books with nothing but a stream of words in paragraphs set up in her a longing for the visual with a few rhythmic words full of images.

My maternal grandmother, a country gardener, wrote me letters, enclosing poems she had cut from the local newspaper, The Perry Herald.  In the summer she walked me around her garden and repeated the common names of plants:  Bleeding Heart, Sweet William.  I loved this slow learning by walking and repeating.  All this, outside of school, began the task of the poet: naming.