The fourth instalment in our series where authors revisit the opening sentences of their stories or poems. Here, Ange Mlinko talks us through the beginning lines of her ‘Revelations’, her poem from the latest issue of Granta.
We could eat grapes half the morning like Goethe
hunkered against an obelisk,
waiting on the proper angle for the season
to see the Sistine sun-kissed,
or we could slip a coin in the device
that illumines another masterpiece
in a sordid chapel (but soon again
dark shrinks it to a gleam of grease).
In this first sentence, divided into two quatrains, two things are happening: the meter goes from a wild pitching to greater regularity, and we go from the gaiety of eighteenth-century Goethe to the belatedness of the twenty-first century tourist. I had recently heard or read an anecdote about the coin-operated lights. How convenient, and yet banal, compared to the practice of waiting for the moment when the sun angles through a window just so.
The poem pitches between eras and places much as the meter pitches, anchored by end-stopped rhymes and off-rhymes. My practice is eminently Modernist in this way – per T.S. Eliot in ‘Some Reflections on Vers Libre’:
But the most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.
And in the back of my mind I remember another rule. In his essay on Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ Joseph Brodsky wrote, ‘Remember: it is the second, and not the first, line that shows where your poem is to go metrically.’ The unscannable first line here is followed by what a metrist would call an iambic tetrameter with a trochaic substitution; but then the third line is a trochaic hexameter, as if cramming an extra foot stolen from the fourth line’s iambic trimeter. The second stanza gradually smoothes out into a final line that returns to that iambic tetrameter (and ends in a more ‘perfect’ rhyme than the first stanza). It is the tetrameter – that song meter used by hymnists and balladeers – that the poem is struggling to buoy as it plies the seas between the Levant and Greece, Greece and Italy, Levant and Ireland (and inland up the Balkans).
When I was a teenager, I memorized anthology pieces from Nortons, and Heaney and Hughes’s The Rattle Bag – little did I know I was permanently etching those rhythms on my ear. I rediscovered the efficacy of meter (or the ‘contrast between fixity and flux’) when I was stuck in a shark tunnel with my kids and was afraid I was coming down with a panic attack. I whipped out a notebook to describe the sharks – and ended up writing in iambic pentameter, engaging some primitive part of my brain that took control of my pulse and breath. Meter is self-soothing. Come to think of it, maybe those dolphins at the end of ‘Revelations’ are transfigurations of the sharks that glided overhead in the tunnel, as on that day I too stopped short at the portals of awe.
Photograph © Conal Gallagher