Pearl London: I want to come back to the whole relevance of rhyme and form for the poet writing now. Because after all we are writing in a time of great tension and great dissonance, and that voice must also be heard. I thought about T.S. Eliot, who said, "Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word." Now, how are you going to answer to that? Take away the rhyme and then you get this ethereal music. And he also says, "The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon language." How do you decide at what point rhyme is going to fulfill your meaning and your purpose?
Molly Peacock: I think he's right - for his own work. He combined rhyme and unrhyme. But the point that rhyme has for contemporary writers now is that very often free verse ignores music. The workshop aesthetic says that the notion of revision is excision. You have to take anything extra out. Get rid of it. [Imitates voice of workshop instructor] "Get rid of that syllable. Why have you got all those articles in there? Take out those "a's," "and's", and "the's."
London: You sound just like Pearl London.
Peacock: And that's wonderful advice to get the student to really see the underpinnings of the language. But if you constantly overapply it, what happens is that you lose those unstressed syllables. And when you lose unstressed syllables, you begin to lose music. I've done some investigation into the metrics of free verse. And looked at the percentage of stressed to unstressed syllables, say, in a free verse poem. It's fascinating. There are always more stressed syllables in a free verse poem - the ones I've looked at. Especially in poems that have a medium to short line. Say Louise Glück - 75 to 80 percent of her shorter lines are comprised of stresses without the relief of unstressed syllables. Getting from one line to the next feels like a very heavy experience. Part of that comes from the technique of excision. But for Glück this technique works so well because it's also an emotional formulation.
I began to be interested in shaping a line to retain my initial impulse in music. Because I found that when I revised, I lost the feeling. That part of the poem is very unconscious, the music coming out of you - that's your voice. I began to see these lines and the rhymes as a way to preserve my voice, the freshness of my own speech.
The system of the line in a poem is entirely different from the system of meaning. The line is strictly musical. The system of meaning in the poem is the system of the sentence. Prose only has one system - the system of the sentence. That's it. It can be very beautiful and lyrical and rhythmical, but just in terms of the sentence. The poem has the line, the rhythm of the line, and the rhythm of the sentence. So there are two types of music that are being dealt with. Very often in free verse, though, the poet goes only toward the rhythm of the sentence, and the rhythm of the line simply supports the rhythm of the sentence.
London: Of course, this is what Wallace Stevens meant when he said, "A poem means in two ways." It has content - it conveys its meaning through content - and its content conveys its meaning through language. That's what you are saying is very often shortchanged in the free verse form.
- Molly Peacock, in conversation with Pearl London in 1992, from Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversations with America's Poets (ed. Alexander Neubauer, Knopf, 2011).