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Molly Peacock. A writing philosophy, adapted from How To Read A Poem, McClelland and Stewart, 1999

A writing philosophy adapted from How To Read A Poem, McClelland & Stewart, 1999


The letter O . . .

When I first fell in love with the word joy because it had a circle inside it, I did not know I was entering a whole way of life. I noticed that while nothing prevented o from appearing at beginnings and endings of words, it was a bigger, rounder O if it lay in the middle, as it does in love or in the world. Inevitably, as joy lead to love, world led me to the word. I still did not realize I had found a method of being through an impulsive rapture with the middle letter of the alphabet, or even that I had passed through the open gates of a wooded community that, while it wasn�t a secret, did seem to have a password: poetry.

A circle, the O of a mouth, holding hands, a hula hoop, a halo, and later in life, the aureole of a breast, a bead of semen. . . . That O was a connector of all things, and it linked me to a habit of thinking � and sanctioned a way of feeling my way � through life among others who have also felt intensely and thought deeply. These are the readers of poetry. The childhood world that lead to a word also lead me to teachers, to friends and finally to a strangely easy compatibility with ambiguity, that is to say, the mystery of adult life. Poetry guided me to and through love affairs, toward friendships, marriage, and to my own vocation.

While at first I was astonished to find that the word circle has no o in it, I also felt the curious combination of being both delighted and stymied that I came to identify with reading poetry. To be comfortable with many inexplicable meanings, yet to be able to find meaning, to actively locate it in a syllable, a beat, an image, and to have both clarity and mystery at the same time � that seems to define the complete way to live. Whatever poetry does, it is always tuned to paradoxes. Of course, I had to admit poetry was becoming my religion. Inside the word religion -- and also tucked inside a more bodily word, ligament -- is the same Latin root ligare, meaning to connect, to bind fast. Not only was I connected to poems, but to other people who have read them.

.. . . Talismans . . .

Each time any of us reads a favorite poem, it conjures a special sorcery of second sight -- and third, and fourth, until understanding is so profound that it returns us to that state before we even had language -- a pre-linguistic place. That�s why it is so hard to say exactly what a poem means. Like being stupidly in love, this art leaves you dumbstruck. Yet how rare -- and thrilling -- to be struck dumb in the all-too-articulate world.

At first I was enthralled by of certain tall, mysterious poems. Then some ordinary-looking poems who turned out to be great dancers captured me. Some poems don�t dance at all. They speak to you from deep inside their chairs, and you know that you are forming a friendship with them that will last your whole life. By giving me passionate reading experiences, these poems taught me how to use intensity, and I discovered a personal mythology in my relationship with each of them. I built stories around them-- and found new choices.

But as I was afraid of love, I could be afraid of my poems, too. After all, sometimes attempting to understand them feels like entering a maelstrom. Many people who feel a tentative affinity to poetry � even love it, and sometimes even write it � don�t really feel they understand it. Slowly I discovered that the apprehension of a poem is a sensuous mental activity. And understanding is gained just the way a love relationship is deepened -- through the blind delight of examining it with the senses and the intellect all at once. Emotive brainwork creates the luxurious understanding.

Sometimes I think we are attracted to a poem because it makes us feel as if someone is listening to us. This may seem like a strange reversal because we are supposed to be listening to it, but the voice of the poem allows us to hear ourselves. It can be a great comfort to hear our own voices emanating through the letters of words that come from someone else. But it can also produce confusion, because we do not always allow ourselves to hear our inner voice and are alarmed by its sound. That is why we say our poets speak for us. Certain poems allow you to feel what you mean, even though you cannot dare to say what that is yourself.

Our sense of the inarticulate in the face of the most articulate art, a helplessness in its presence -- coupled with a sureness of our attachment to it even though we don�t know why -- can bewitch us. Or at least it has bewitched me. I�ve stood shifting from foot to foot, in classrooms, in bookstores, in boudoirs, puzzling through poetry�s conundrums all my reading life. When we hear our forbidden inner natures inside the rhythm of another -- as when I heard Our fate is forked in the voice of an anonymous medieval poet, or Pitched past pitch of grief in Gerard Manley Hopkins� voice, or even in the 20th century voice of Elizabeth Bishop, the line Somebody loves us all -- we may encounter an aspect of a poem that refuses insight, and seems to be untranslatable into our own internal language. This might be due to psychological resistence, or to the sudden distance between bodily and intellectual understanding. This toughness of resistance to meaning feels as if the poem had an impenetrable rind -- yet how the poem glows! And through that rind a light shines out to us, and these poems become our talismans.

A talisman is an object which gives its bearer a special hold on life, even though the talisman itself might at first be as undecipherable an ancient Chinese poem written in ideograms. But a hold on life is what I got from my favorite poems, and I toted them around like amulets against the world, using them to ward off every evil. The Greek root telesma means to consecrate, fulfill, or complete, and my talisman poems had a holy quality of sensuous pleasure.

. . . Teachers . . .

After a while it occurred to me that I could make these amulets myself. I first made one as a girl when I was ten, then another a few years later, then a group of haiku in high school. I felt so secretive about them that I wrote in French -- bad, halting French. Nor was I one of those kids who wrote in lockable leather notebooks. I think they become novelists. Instead, I would write something on a bit of paper, enjoying the fact that the paper was free on all four sides, unbound. Then I�d tote it around for years, just the way I did with the talismans I read. I took most pleasure in writing and reading small, portable things, so I liked short, musical poems, lyric poetry. Figuring out how to make lyric poems made me read better. After all, I had to understand the model in order to repeat it and make it my own. That was when I began taking such poems apart, the way some boys I knew dismantled clocks. We were all interested in how things tick.

Each time I understood a poem better, I made some decision in my own life that I understood better than before � because poems showed me unvarnished states of human emotion that I could examine. After many decades, I realized that the healthiest part of my life was art, and that if I could make mature decisions in life the way I made them in art, with the concentration, focus, and balanced energy of poetry, then I would be leading a life I admired.

It took me a while to know what kind of life that was. I married and divorced. Meanwhile I had completely buried a love I had for my high school and college boyfriend, a man I lost touch with, but found and married twenty-five years later. During our time away from each other, he became a scholar, devoting himself to literature. I worked as a college administrator and even published a number of poems before I realized I had to get back to school -- to learn more about ars poetica. At The Johns Hopkins University I met Richard Howard, poet, critic and translator. He charged poetry in ways that electrified me. It was as if he wore windy robes of vocabulary, lined with the silks of etymology, gusseted with pockets for stray linguistic facts. This delighted me as if my own uncle had appeared with shiny gifts from abroad. But compared to Richard, my own words felt plain as fenceposts. Here was a man of letters. And I was a woman of . . . . what was I a woman of?

I wasn�t a scholar. I knew I didn�t have the temperament for it. I wanted to be out in the world. But where in the world was that world?

. . . A Calling . . .

By now the double helix of teaching and poetry had entered me, like the DNA of literary life. Yet I didn�t want to be a professor. I couldn�t declare myself a woman of letters -- that was probably something one became in spite of oneself, not by trying. Besides, I didn�t know any women of letters. I was blessed by the men who taught me poetry, triply blessed by the fact that all three of them respected and attended me as if I were a special species of plant. Yet their goals were the goals of men, and I was inventing a life. Slowly I realized that a literary life for me would involve writing poems, reading poems -- and teaching the talismans I was still avidly collecting. It was then I realized that my talismans had actually collected me. Now I realize they are so interrelated that they make a strange kind of sacred and profane family of poems. They are about God and sex and defining a self, and these, not surprisingly, are concerns in my own poetry.

To learn about something hair-triggered and complex, complete with its own structures and therefore its own ways of knowing and conveying, is to illumine the paths of existence itself. Communing with these poems collected over years, each continuing to exhibit vitality as I look at its body, its nervous system, skeletal system, circulatory system, with greater consciousness and greater regard, fires in me a respect for the conscious act of living. And that is what I hope to convey when I talk to people about my calling as a poet.

Molly Peacock's works copyright © to the author.

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