I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks. I have been contributing to the ongoing course called The Construction of the Poem which takes students through the various constituent elements that go to make up a poem. It is advertised as on ‘the history and application of formal techniques’ and my brief is to cover metrical issues. Though the course is directed more at learning about such techniques than the application of them (this is partly just a matter of time restrictions), one exercise we have played around with is growing our own iambics – from little monometers great fourteeners may grow!
The first dab of culture in the experimental petri dish is the simplest of forms, the iambic monometer. If you want to join in with this, it hardly matters what you come up with (and I certainly make no claims for what follows) partly because the exercise is also exploring Glyn Maxwell’s claim that using form will propel the poet towards “words you didn’t expect, matter you never chose, resonances that crept up around you” (from On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012)). Michael Donaghy often suggested something similar: “Like good poets whom the tyranny of rhyme forces into the discovery of their finest lines, I’m in it for the discovery. If writing poems were merely a matter of bulldozing ahead with what you’d already made up in your mind to say I’d have long ago given it up for something more dignified” (from ‘My Report Card’ – 2000).
Here I’m more concerned with choosing regular iambs than making much sense. The hesitating movement of the short lines works quite well. In the Poetry School sessions we looked at Robert Herrick’s famous poem in this metre, ‘Upon His Departure Hence’, as well as one by Karen McCarthy Woolf (‘Mort-Dieu’). Both poems use the curbed tentativeness of the metre to reflect on mortality – almost as if the form offered a safe form, a containment of (too) powerful emotion.
Now re-organise the same material as a dimeter. This will involve the composition (if that’s quite the word) of further lines simply to complete the form and this will take you into unexpected territory perhaps . . .
Because I hope
To speak to her
I walk again
Along the way
The path beside
the old canal
where children play
and mothers come
The dimeter remains a very brief line (I don’t feel much need for punctuation yet) but here the short reach of each line gives some urgency to the narrator’s hoping to speak to “her”. The reader (as much as the writer at this stage) is wondering who both narrator and hoped-for interlocutor is. The extra material begins to suggest maternal possibilities, partners, other children . . . The “again” of line 3 is also interesting – a recurrent search. Why can’t she be found. What is this need to speak to her? Why come to this location?
Now re-organise further to make a trimeter:
Because I hope to speak
to her I walk again
along the way, the path
beside the old canal,
where children play and mothers
come, where thistles bloom
in purple knots that grey
and drift across the path.
It feels natural to want to punctuate these lines now with their greater complexity and greater risk of ambiguity. The three beat lines perhaps begin to evoke the pacing of the walker? There is an issue with the 5th line in which (keeping to a strict iambic metre) the word “mothers” ought to be broken across the line break. I’ve decided to allow an extra syllable into line 5, so ending it with a feminine, weak, seventh syllable. Line 6 I’ve therefore left with one syllable short. It’s happenstance but I like the extra dwelling of a reader’s attention on “mothers” (I begin to think the “she’ is a mother, or the narrator may be a mother searching for a female child). The shortening of line 6 which refers to “thistles” also feels right; it introduces a spiky, perhaps threatening image and the shortened line creates an uneasy feel. These undoubtedly ‘fortuitous’ developments are just the sort of thing the poet has a veto over – we decide whether they stand or need to be revised further. Here, I let them stand.
Next stage is an iambic tetrameter – four iambs per line:
Because I hope to speak to her
I walk again along the way,
the path beside the old canal,
where children play and mothers come,
where thistles bloom in purple knots
that grey and drift across the path,
here strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,
with needles dropped another day,
where users lean and drift, ascend
above the clouds and steeple cock.
Woah! No – I don’t know where this is heading . . . The longer length of line now begins to give a more conversational feel. This four beat line (either with accentual-syllabic or plain stress metre) is probably the most common in English verse. I think of it (and the good old iambic pentameter) as sort of neutral spots on the metrical continuum – neither too tightly bound nor loosely adrift). The greying of the thistles now seems to allude to aging (of the narrator?), certainly to time passing, time on her mind. The sweet wrappers make a clear gesture towards childhood; the discarded needles strike a far more ominous note (if a bit clichéd). Is the narrator seeking a child, no longer a child, has she become involved with drug abuse?
If you want to see this poem developing into an iambic pentameter – and find out (with me) what the poem is really about – I’ll post the remainder of this blog on Monday.
2 thoughts on “How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 1”
Perfect, clear explanation. I think I’ll use it with everyone from now on who asks about iambics.
Thanks. It was fun to do.