How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 2

This is the second posting on a metrical exercise on iambics. I have been teaching 3 sessions for the Poetry School in the last few weeks, 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 – this began with an iambic monometer and grew into an iambic tetrameter as detailed in my previous posting.

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Starting from the tetrameter again, the poem will now grow some more . . . This is where I got to last time:

 

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.

 

From this pretty regular iambic tetrameter, grow on further lines while at the same time lengthened these lines to iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line). New material indicated in italics:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk

again along this 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’s strewn

with wrappers torn from sweets, with needles dropped

another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock.

Its glint I glimpse where water stands, its gold

a coin, a drowned, two-headed coin she tossed.

A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wings

slapping the surface like a window smashed.

 

I’ve slightly re-jigged line 2 here and feel the need to punctuate more heavily with the lengthening lines. The di-syllabic “mothers” again presents an issue at line 3 – I’ve made the same choice here as before, not breaking the word, allowing 11 syllables in line 3, shortening line 4 to 9 syllables. “Slapping” – given the sudden violence of the bird’s flight – I have allowed to stand as a reversed, trochaic foot opening line 12. I’m now thinking of the narrator as a mother (though as easily a father) who has come to a place remembered as visited with a daughter, now more grown up. The coin toss image seems to allude to some life-chance or choice and the inclusion in the poem – in the narrator’s observations – of the discarded needles probably tells its own story.

 

Beyond the pentameter lies the less common reaches of the hexameter or alexandrine – six iambic feet per line:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again

along the path, this way beside the old canal

where children play and mothers come, thistles

bloom into purple knots that grey and drift across

the path strewn here with wrappers torn from sweets, needles

dropped on another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. Its glint

I glimpse where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned

two-headed coin she tossed. A bird is panicked from

the reeds, its wings beat the water like a window

smashed. If I stand inside the door and gaze across

the pews towards the brightly coloured glass of saints

and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs

each filled with sun, her robe is blue, her arms are full.

 

The lengthened line now begins to drag a little and is feeling rather clumsy here (it would need more work if I wanted to go with this) but as a reader I think of the slow, rather mournful walk of what now seems to be the possibly bereaved narrator. In line 3 the two syllables of “thistles” again ought to be broken across the line break – this time I cut the preceding word (“where”) to give more of a jolt to this threatening word so line 3 ends with a trochaic foot – “come” and “thist-” forming a spondee. Line 4 opens with a trochee too. The word “needles” presents the same problem at the end of line 5 – this I’ve re-jigged as above (though it does not read well to my ear at the moment). But I guess I’m happier to disrupt the predominant iambic by this stage – partly because it’s clearer to me now that this poem has a dark edge to it – but also because the longer lines give (maybe they need?) the chance of more variation. Line 10 has also been altered a little, “slapping” is replaced by the stronger monosyllable “beat”. The unexpected leap into the church interior seemed a good idea – a change of scene – and an intuitive link to the smashed rippling of the canal water, reminding the narrator of stained-glass. The image of Madonna and child is maybe too obvious but actually feels right for both writer (me) and the narrator (definitely now a mother of a child lost somehow). It’s also more acceptable as the church steeple had already been alluded to in the poem.

 

I’m now going to take this as far as the iambic heptameter line or fourteener:

 

Because I hope to speak to her, I walk again along

the way, this path beside the old canal, where children play

and mothers come and thistles bloom in purple knots that grey

and drift across the path. It’s strewn with wrappers torn from sweets,

with needles dropped another day, where users lean and drift,

ascend above the clouds and steeple cock. I glimpse its glint

where water stands, its gold a coin, a drowned two-headed coin

she tossed. A bird is panicked from the reeds, its wing-beats break

the water like a window smashed. I stand inside the door

and gaze across the pews towards the brightly coloured glass

of saints and martyrs, mother, child in arms, its chubby limbs

each filled with sun. Her robe is blue, her arms are full of blood,

the red of ribbons, red of nails, the red of every month.

It’s her I think I need to find. Beyond the traffic noise,

I cross the bridge. A narrow boat is gliding down below,

its brightly painted tubs, its name a girl’s, I watch it pass

into the dark, a stink of smoke, a swirl, a wink of light.

 gifford1

That the Madonna’s arms are full of blood surprised me but probably I am echoing those earlier thoughts of veins and needles. The repetitions of “red” felt quite bold, I think following the maturing of the narrator’s daughter. I grew up near the Kennet and Avon canal and still walk there often watching the narrow boats pass. Many of them are carefully decorated by their owners and this was coming to mind at the end though I still think this is a very urban part of the canal network. Obviously the passing boat, with its girl’s name, reminds the mother of her daughter (I guess we still don’t know exactly what happened to her) and though there is something positive in the painted colours of the boat (echoing the coloured windows in church I now realize), its passing into the tunnel is ominous and the fragmenting of the lines (these long lines are good for this) suggest a dissolving or passing away.

I don’t know how this reads yet as a poem and it’s certainly to raw and new to think which of these forms suit it best (if any). But it’s not a poem or a place I might have entered into without the use of this very methodical exercise. It’s worth a try, I think, and whatever the results, it’ll set you thinking about line lengths generally and patterned rhythm or metre more specifically – essential tools of the poet at any stage.

2 thoughts on “How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 2

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