How to Grow your Own Iambics Part 1

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!

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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).

 

Because

I hope

To speak

To her

I walk

Again

Along

The way

The path

Beside

The old

Canal

 

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.

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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.

The art of the line break

I do like Glyn Maxwell’s thoughts on this in his 2013 book, On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012). I’m roughly quoting:

Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white. Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss . .  don’t make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing. It’s nothing for your novelist etc . . . for those folks it’s a tabula rasa, a giving surface. For a poet it’s half of everything. If you don’t know how to use it you are writing prose. If you write poems that you might call free and [Maxwell] might call unpatterned then skillful, intelligent use of the whiteness is all you’ve got. Put more practically, line-break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don’t know there is a border. . .  a prose poem is prose done by a poet. . .

I like the physical sensation he creates here of the two spaces a poet works with – that almost dizzying cliff-edge of the line breaking, the powerful effect that must have, that it does have. And I’ve, personally, long puzzled over the prose poem, wondering ‘why?’. Some of my best friends write prose poems – look out Linda Black’s published by Shearsman – but they remain a closed book to me – ha ha. Why would you not exploit the white space Maxwell talks of? Surely not just because the art of the line break is a hard one to master? Oh – the discussions in workshops I’ve had! Briefly – something to do with breath, to do with reading the lines aloud, to do with the line having some weight before you snap it off. The rest – intuition.