My first encounter with Molly Peacock was in the majestic nave of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, where I was an audience member attending her one-person show, "The Shimmering Verge." Like an urban apparition, Molly appeared from the cavernous darkness on a thrust stage, bathed by spotlights of pastel hues and clad in effulgent cloth. She captivated us with her indefatigable poetic spirit and gave us a poignant and rhapsodic evening. I had read several of Molly’s poems—cleverly woven into this performance—from literary journals and from her own books of poetry. I admired most her impeccable craftsmanship and elastic playfulness with language and form. But on this theatrical occasion, I didn’t visualize the nut-and-bolts of structured verse, such as deliberate punctuation, or line breaks of lilting quatrains sprinkled with wry humor. Instead, the words flowed with a seamless through line, transforming the text into a dazzling self-portrait of a master poet, one who has been teaching and writing poetry her entire adult life.
My next encounter was with Molly Peacock the teacher. I was delighted to hear that she would be teaching a three week workshop for the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y: March 2007. Since Peacock divides her busy teaching schedule between Toronto, New York, and universities throughout the United States and Europe, I leapt at the chance to attend this upcoming practicum, and for the privilege to learn new insights from a consummate artist.
Her workshop’s title intrigued me: The Poet’s Decision: Aesthetic Choices in Writing. The classes would take place on three consecutive Sunday afternoons lasting three hours each. There was a logistical array of pre-class preparation to insure a smooth first class. Luckily, Molly has embraced the technological age of the 21st Century with her own nifty website—and has mustered the techie-smarts for systematically organizing students via the internet.
A couple of weeks before we were to convene, participants received an email greeting from Molly, requesting each student to e-mail ten pages of poetry. The poems could be poems-in-progress, new or published poems, or older poems that needed a new look after several years. Molly tediously cut and pasted 120 pages of poetry, dividing our poems into three large document files—to be downloaded before each class, on a week-by-week basis. As a pragmatic realist, Molly encouraged us to bring multiple hard copies of our work to the Y, in case of unpredictable computer glitches.
In her next missive, Molly stated we would focus on four poets per class—for a solid half hour each. She proposed some questions for us all to ponder: What do you admire in poetry? What poets do you admire? What do you really want for your work? What are your fears for your work? What are your aesthetic goals and enthusiasms?
A few days later, Molly notified us with a list of exact dates each person’s poems would be considered. We were to familiarize ourselves with all of the student’s downloaded poetry—in order to get a comprehensive overview of each poet’s entire body of work. The night before our first session, Molly surprised us with one last email. She had pre-selected three poems from each student—to become the artistic centerpiece of our allotted time. Indeed, a formidable amount of advance study was required, to fully prepare for a no-time-wasted learning experience.
For myself, there was palpable anticipation before our initial gathering. Having closely read forty pages of poetry from the first four students, I felt as if I knew many complexities about my classmates before I laid eyes on them. On the afternoon of the first meeting, Molly breezed into the classroom exuding downtown flair—accessorized by the required Upper East Side strand of pearls. With her infectious laugh, she strolled around the room, acknowledging each student individually, creating an intimate coziness in the venerable 92nd Street Y.
After brief introductions, I was pleased to learn the other writers attending were a diverse, eclectic bunch: a potpourri of recent college grads to seasoned senior voices. Among a variety of professions represented, our assemblage included: a family court judge, a sculptor, a taxi driver, a psychiatrist, an art critic, and a web wonk. And thankfully, all writing resumes were checked at the door!
Molly forged ahead with a vivacious prologue outlining the primary objectives for our time together, then smoothly transitioned into a quiet pedagogical mode, expanding how this workshop would take a different approach from a traditional poetry workshop. In many workshops sessions begin with a reading of a poem by a famous poet—which leads to a group discussion of poetic form and interpretation. Usually a round robin follows as individual members dissect a poem or two for critique. The emphasis is often on the pyrotechnics of the poem—such as line breaks, meter, choice of imagery, etc. Molly assured us that all of these prosodic technicalities were extremely important in the writing of a poem, but instead of poetic minutia, we would be examining larger bodies of work. We would locate and identify the underpinnings of the emotional options that we had chosen, when making beat-by-beat aesthetic decisions—as our poems evolved organically from beginning to end.
One by one, the first four poets began their half hour by candidly addressing individual poetic goals and aspirations, while expounding on the original questions posed by Molly in her early e-mails. Under the spotlight, each poet read aloud their pre-selected poems, which, Molly later informed us, were chosen because of wide-ranging psychological components and poetic forms.
Molly immediately zeroed in on the metaphysical qualities and tone of each poem shared. She identified the emotional turning points of phrases or stanzas that gave the verse its pulsating drive. Class members were invited into a dialogue with the featured poets and to give feedback.
Through highly individual writing styles—and various levels of development—some students spun narratives in formal verse, while others painted sparsely with symbolist language, devoid of punctuation. Each expressed strong convictions about what they had written. All searched for new paths which would lead them into a deeper realm.
In lively discussions intertwined with reflective silences, Molly addressed that intangible, esoteric subject: aesthetic decisions. She asked us how our poems were initially conceived, what mental associations or memories triggered the inspiration to jot down a word, a phrase, or a first draft. She elegantly elaborated on the magnetic power of our imaginations, reminding us how imagination often starts with the question, What if?—then shifts to—What happens? She challenged us to pinpoint where the imagination for our poems had its origins. What was the driving force originally motivating us to quickly scribble down the poem in its embryonic stages?
We investigated specific line patterns, contemplating how visual shapes of poems naturally derived from the poet’s core visceral experience. Many questions arose: Why were some poems written in large square blocks? Why were others formally shaped into couplets? What possessed a particular writer to splatter random words on the page? How were these visual shapes an extension of the poet’s own life drama?
After the first set of students bravely probed their work, we became more knowledgeable the following week, listening to the next four poets grappling at patterns emerging from their assortment of poems. For example, we discovered several writers wrote centrifugally: using strong images, surrealistic metaphors, and repeated rhythms spinning out from a central nucleus. Others shaped poems centripetally: circling a subject literally and narrowing it down to unravel a thematic story.
Molly illustrated how rhythmic and musical elements in our poems may influence different aesthetic directions. Particularly in the revision of a poem, the rhythmic line, whether lento or staccato, conjures poetic music that navigates the poem toward its underlying emotional subtext. Molly reminded us how a poem always has two rhythms to consider: the rhythm of the sentence and the rhythm of the line.
For the second session, it was my turn for a subjective half hour forum. In the world of poetry, it is often a luxury for a poet to banter about poems for thirty minutes. For myself, it was an empowering awakening. I had an attentive audience who was there to give support and helpful observations—as I chatted comfortably about my poetry’s aesthetic evolution. It was the actual act of speaking aloud about the emotional complexities of my poems, that catapulted me to a higher level of understanding of my own approach to writing. Distinguishing which of my poems were constricted emotionally, lacking authentic feelings true to my aesthetic choices, I was able to see my work with a clearer vision. By publicly examining my body of work with a fine tooth comb, it was apparent I needed to revisit the original passions which inspired me to write these poems in the first place.
During each writer’s focus period, Molly used her vast knowledge of classical and contemporary poetry and her keen diagnostic eye to suggest readings of specific writers with whom she felt we shared a kinship. One student, who cleverly teased with punctuation for dramatic emphasis, was steered toward the poems of Frank O’Hara. A young woman beginning her first steps at serious writing and who wrote poems that were flowing with long sweeping lines was encouraged to read Walt Whitman. Beneath another student’s hesitancy, Molly sensed a waterfall of words and gave her an assignment to write in tumbling, even feverish rhythms. Several students, whose poems began with direct address, were encouraged to read William Blake and other British Romantics. Molly even noted how one woman’s stark invocations resembled the incantations that are the basis of tribal poetries. What continually amazed me about Molly was her sensitive musical ear and ability to demonstrate how rhythms of nascent poems often transform into distinct metrical feet of formal verse.
Much of our last session was devoted to dreams and the psychodynamic tension rumbling through deeply personal poetry. Molly mused about the emotional substance of dreams, and how dream logic plays a significant factor in our aesthetic choices. Ambiguities and paradoxes infiltrated many of the considered poems. Lack of closure made the endings of some of our poems appear to hover in mid-air. Yet many of us attempted to conclude poems with tidy endings, even though we all agreed that halcyon finales are rare occurrences in most life crises. Molly reiterated that poems which do not over-resolve are those that truly engulf the reader.
At the conclusion of this marvelous workshop, having ten poems X-rayed from a roomful of sharp eyes and ears, I experienced a elevated self-awareness of my poetry’s strengths and weaknesses, and a fresh perspective of how poems shape themselves by instinctive aesthetic choices. More significantly, I gained confidence in the power of my poems to keep unraveling unexplored questions, as I endeavor to capture fully the uniqueness of my own voice. For three weeks, twelve strangers had been poetically bonded to each other as we excavated the sources of our choices. Having Molly Peacock as a guide made the digging much more pleasurable.
Davidson Garrett is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, and has been a New York City taxi driver for over 25 years. He trained for the theater at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied acting for several years with Alice Spivak. A graduate of The City College of New York with an M.S. in Education, he taught school in the South Bronx at the nationally acclaimed St. Augustine School of the Arts. As a member of Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity, he has worked periodically in film, television, and theater since 1973. One of his more challenging roles was playing a dead body on Law and Order, and he has performed in several verse dramas by T. S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Shakespeare. His poetry has been published in The New York Times, Xavier Review (New Orleans), Sensations Magazine, The Unknown Writer, The Wild Angels Anthology, and on the video website: poetryvlog.com. In 2000, his chapbook manuscript, Taxi Dreams, was a finalist in the Gival Press Chapbook competition. It later evolved into his first collection of poems, King Lear of the Taxi: Musings of a New York City Actor/Taxi Driver. (Advent Purple Press, 2006) Davidson is especially grateful for his earlier studies with the gifted poet, Dean Kostos, who first introduced him to the poetry of Molly Peacock.