Molly Peacock’s unusual combination of form and content is unique in contemporary poetry. She allows her rhymes and rhythms to underscore rather than fully control the content, and her work serves as a counterexample for any theory that wishes to equate formalism and conservatism—poetic or political. Peacock’s poems are blunt, direct, sensual, and sometimes shocking. She writes about sex, abuse, intimacies, and violations, often in sonnet form, making form seem as natural and real as her topics. The control exerted by form is sometimes almost invisible, but it is there, and the subtle poetic effect helps to center the reading. Moreover, she is a force for the democratizing of poetry and the reclamation of it from the elite. She has been active in the Poetry in Motion project, which placed poetry in public locations such as buses, and her handbook helps those who have more or less written off poetry as an enjoyable art form to appreciate it again.
Peacock is a strong voice for the practice and appreciation of formal poetry. She guides her own students gently into an attempt at form: “Start by just counting ten syllables,” she tells them. After they have learned to do that, she finds it easier to lead them to subtleties of rhythm and language. By beginning with what is easy and natural in formal poetry, she is able to overcome prejudice against it and encourage skill in its use. She encourages a more feeling-based and participatory approach to poetry in her work and attempts to make readers more involved by inviting them to approach the poetry without academic preconceptions and heavy critical or theoretical paraphernalia.
Peacock’s work shares related themes: that all life is interconnected, that the physical and the mental lives are really as one, that abuse ultimately either kills or toughens. Later poems show a preoccupation with transcendence and with the other end of the body-mind continuum: the spirit or soul. Indirectly but powerfully, Peacock’s poetry teaches independence; more effectively than any therapist, it shows the many ways in which one may make choices, take action, and accept responsibility for one’s acts. It goes on to demonstrate with sensuous intensity the rewards for doing these things.
Peacock’s poems are often so physical that they seem like a blow—nothing is glossed over or romanticized, but her poetry is firmly rooted in the real soil of human passion. The wordplay and sheer joy of some poems are balanced by a certain grimness in others; her scope is wide. Animals populate Peacock’s poetry, mostly live ones, glistening with a quirky, telling symbolism. These are beasts from a bestiary, elephants, squirrels, raccoons, birds, pets, and pests, animals whose pure vitality communicates itself to the poem even while their behavior comments on some element of human nature.
And Live Apart
Peacock’s first poetry collection combines formalism with narrative to explore George Herbert’s premise from the poem “Giddinesse,” quoted as an epigraph, that “Surely if each one saw another’s heart,/ There would be no commerce,/ No sale or bargain passe: all would disperse,/And live apart.” These poems explore the conflicts involved in the need for intimacy and the equally pressing need for independence and self-definition. The child’s sentience and the mental energy needed to grow up are memorably evoked in poems such as the long “Alibis and Lullabies,” which shows the speaker’s journey to independence with its threats and gifts.
Peacock’s gift for narrative and her ability to make connections that transmit...
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