Metrical Diversity in the Iambic Fog: How an Editor Healed My Poem After 43 Years
Annie Finch, 1975. Photo by Lou Dohme
I was unprepared for the unshed tears that pricked at my eyes as I thought about when I first wrote this poem and the 43-year journey to its publication. There were tears of compassion for the 24-year-old version of myself at a brutal life-juncture: for the struggling young poet who showed this poem to Galway Kinnell after a Poetry Society of America workshop in 1981, what that felt like, and what happened after (which will be told in a memoir I’m writing). There were tears of astonished humility at the sublime miracle of life’s precise meanderings and sure timings: the moments when they are glimpsed and the surely the more constant moments when they remain invisible. There were tears of gratitude for Ecotone’s remarkable editor Anna Lena Phillips Bell and the unique role she played in this poem’s journey. And there were tears of awe at that tensile, sure-footed, generously endless & endlessly generous, wisely relentless & relentlessly wise interpenetrativity of woven word-web that somehow, in spite of everything, holds together the magical miraculousness that is Metrical Poetry.
So why did this poem (free online at Ecotone for the next two weeks) so much need to wait through 43 years of the magical word-web to be published? I believe it was waiting for a moment of editorial healing—a moment that would only be possible when four decades of nascent ideas had snaked their heads up through the earth, found their way into the poetic awareness of a new generation, and fully ripened into transformational possibility.
I wrote “Fog’s Garden” at age 24. I was living in my parents’ home recovering from a severe bout of what doctors were calling “temporary reactive psychosis”—(a diagnosis that later turned out to be in error), suffered while hitchhiking in Africa with my best friend (yup; also part of the memoir). After 18 years of writing poems and some deep study of meter in college, I was still, then, barely beginning to catch a glimpse of the metrical ways I would later come to walk, and dance, and fly in.
But I felt it —looking out the window, sensing the gathering moisture of metrical momentum seeding through my life like condensation saturating a cloud—the weight of that wordless strangeness within and without, and the hope of survival it carried. And I also felt a bit of fear at its strangeness, at something unnamed that clung to it, likely remembering Joan North’s remarkable fantasy novel The Cloud Forest—the only novel for which I’ve written the author a fan letter).
Fear or not, the cloud dripped heavy and the poem came to me with the names of meters in it:
And here is fog. Only the iambic fog in particles,
the rain in trochee drops, can cool my garden's mind . . .
I am quite sure I typed up “Fog’s Garden” that spring and mailed it to The New Yorker with a few other equally surreal poems—I remember one called “Plough” and one called “Nobody Has Feet,” another poem with a metrical theme—to wait for the inevitable thin envelope and then file it away for decades with the other postmodern metrical strangenesses I was writing (my 2013 book Spells contains 40 of what I came to call “The Lost Poems,” and there are dozens more).
Four decades, to be exact.
Flash-forward to 2021: I’m sending the poem to Ecotone’s editor Anna Lena Phillips Bell—whom I met in the mid-1990s when she transferred from Guilford in North Carolina to Northern Iowa for a year as an undergraduate, at the behest of the poet Carolyn Beard Whitlow, so she could learn about meter from me. Who does that? So I shouldn’t have been surprised (though I was!) when Anna Lena wrote to say that, although she loved the poem, she thought—in part, I might imagine, based on some of my own ideas about the #metricalcode and #deepscansion—that “dactylic”would be a more appropriate meter to describe the fog than “iambic.”
While preparing to send her the poem, I had had the same thought. In view of The Ghost of Meter and my other work on the patriarchal connotations carried by iambic pentameter, I had considered switching “iambic” to “dactylic” as a more evocative and generous meter (the Meter of the Heart, in my developing Five Directions metrical system). I had abandoned the possibility.
But Anna Lena, once my brilliant student—one whose openness to the resonances of meter early on helped grow my confidence to continue with my ideas—knew better, She held the poem’s terminology accountable to the wisdom of the metrical universe we were both coming to know. And the end, her insight changed the poem completely.
Here are a few excerpts from this correspondence, which remains one of my favorite email conversations :
Jan 12, 2o21
We'd be very glad to read a few poems if you'd like to send them, as you mentioned last fall. I'd be pleased to share them with our team as we make final decisions for the issue. . .
Jan 12, 2o21
Dear Anna Lena,
Wonderful! i will be happy to send some tomorrow. And sorry I dropped the ball— I ended up moving rather suddenly to Portugal this fall and a lot of things fell through the cracks. . .
Feb 9, 2021
Happy new month and new week! I hope you are doing well in your new home. My colleague Sophia Stid and I read the poems you sent with appreciation, and particularly enjoyed "Fog's Garden." That last stanza, especially, is exquisite!
Earlier in the poem, we had a question, about which I'd be curious to hear what you think. In the third stanza, we were stopped a bit by the description of the fog as iambic. When I imagine fog, it seems easier somehow to picture a triple meter...(side note: thinking of fog and meter, I came to dactyls and Sandburg's "The fog comes in / on little cat feet" : ). Though perhaps there will come a time when this feels less the case, somehow still the word/idea of iambs (if not always the meter itself) still carries a lot of people-world/patriarchal-world associations, for us, and the fog of the poem feels so different from that, a rebuke or alternative to it—so we spun out of the poem at that spot, wondering. I'd love to understand better what you mean there!
Thanks in advance for your thoughts, and thanks again for sending these! So good to see this work.
All my best,
Feb 9, 2021
Dear Anna Lena,
You are truly an amazing editor, as I have always felt...i can't believe you picked up on this! Before sending the poems, I contemplated this exact question for a long time.
The truth is, "Fog's Garden" was written a very very long time ago--in 1980, when I was 24 years old and still thought of myself as a free verse poet who had written some formal exercises. I hadn't
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