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Archive for the ‘Structured vs. unstructured poetry’ Category

SS Edmund Fitzgerald underway, photo by Winston Brown

Perhaps the oldest form of poetry in most languages, the art of story-telling in rhyme and meter, has staying power like little else in literary history.  Recording historical events, myths, and everyday happenings—comic, tragic, or somewhere in between—the ballad has traditionally been sung and accompanied by (frequently a stringed) musical instrument.  Yet many unforgettable tales in rhyme and meter stand sufficiently alone on paper, begging to be read aloud.

My English literature background is rich with balladry beginning with that bloody saga of Good vs. Evil, Beowulf.  In the 1990s, when we lived in a home with a vaulted wood paneled ceiling we hung the heads of a Javelina pig and a pronghorn antelope—both hunted, bagged, and bequeathed to me by my father.  As I viewed the mounted heads, I experienced a wash of Beowulf Medieval atmosphere; I just had to get out an old textbook and read parts of that gory drama in the ancestral hall.

Whereas some of the characters in the ballad had grown fuzzy or obscure in my head over decades, the mood and setting were indelible.  Mood and atmosphere are created by music, with or without words.

English literature is replete with balladry.  Some beloveds probably known to most aficionados of poetry are Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci and Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman.  Add The Rime of he Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge and haunting works by America’s own Edgar Allan Poe (examples: Annabel Lee and The Raven) and you have a start toward Balladry 101.  The canon is endless.

The tradition of story-telling via ballads set to music was big in the 1960s, with the popularity of folk music and wrung-out war-protests.  This music continued into the 1970s.  But since then, except in isolated parts of the country where (happily) folk music is inherent to the local culture, the ballad seems to have dropped through the floor—as if someone played a foul trick by suddenly opening up a hidden trapdoor on the floor of a stage, and absconding with a lot of life-quality in the process.

Now fakey-flashing lights, screaming, throbbing, gyrating about in indecent attire, and the glorifying of oblivion—all personified by The Coarse and Obnoxious (as well as The Just Plain Weird!) have supplanted the age-old entertainment mode of telling and re-telling the human story, both epic and everyday, in a format that implants one’s heart and mind forever.  As a society, we have lost the power of the ballad—and the loss is tragic beyond definition!

The stage lights went out and the metaphorical trapdoor opened up shortly after the immense popularity of what I believe to be one of the most significant ballads in contemporary times:  The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot—a multi-gifted composer and troubadour.  With the obvious exception of fictional last minute commentary on the ship, Lightfoot documented the tragedy with careful selection of factual information.

The ballad triggered an inquisitive spirit in me, and in recent years I’ve read everything I could get my hands on concerning the Fitzgerald (pictured above in all its original glory.)  As far as I know, there is still a question:  Did the ship hit an uncharted shoal which jarred the hatches loose, or had they been improperly secured?  God knows.

Shipwrecks are among history’s most horrific events.  I have a penchant for reading about peril on high water, and oddly enough I don’t even like to be tossed about on a small inland lake in a sailboat.

Yes, I do swim and I love water.  Canoes and rowboats are wonderful!  Motors are okay, too.  But flailing in the wind?  No thank you—only in a book.  I have read about many ship disasters, including the Titanic which was massive in scope and devastation compared to the Fitz.  So why is the Edmund Fitzgerald foremost in my head?

Maybe because it happened in my recent lifetime, and less than three hundred miles from home.  Or even more likely, because Gordon Lightfoot wrote and performed an unforgettable song about the Fitz.  It’s all about The Power of the Ballad.

Margaret L. Been — April 23, 2016

Note:  Over decades of serious application to the art of poetry I have written many lyrical, philosophy-of-life pieces.  Ten years ago I decided to try writing a ballad, and I did exactly that.

The ballad is titled:  The Summer of Horses, and it is kind of a metaphorical-epiphany thing.  I was pleased with the effort, and the ballad won 1st Honorable Mention in the 2006 Wisconsin Writers’ Association Annual Jade Ring Contest.

God willing, and the creeks don’t rise, AND providing the days do not suddenly go berserk and hit 70-80° F., I will post The Summer of Horses on this site before National Poetry Month morphs into the Merry Month of May.

But please don’t hold your breath!  🙂

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“There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.”

Robert Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

For some unfathomable reason, every year about this time I get out my COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT SERVICE and read through the selections night after night—especially those narratives set in North America’s last frontier.  There is something infinitely exciting and wonderful in reading about the utterly frozen northern reaches of the world—when winter gales are howling outside our windows and we are snuggly secured in a warm bed, in a warm house.

My love for Robert Service goes back to the 1940s, and my Wauwatosa High School days.  Forensics were big in schools back then, and each year I competed in the dramatic reading division.  Always, someone would recite from Robert Service—choosing “Sam McGee” or the “The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and presenting these narratives with hilarious tonal effects as well as body language.

I wonder if (and seriously doubt that) contemporary young people have ever heard of Robert Service, let alone read him!  Do today’s students even know what a narrative poem is?  If not, I wonder if they have a gnawing sense of missing something vital—some integral aspect of the human experience!  The oral tradition of the narrative poem predates written history; it is as essential to the whole person as those material basics of water, food, and air.  Like music, the narrative poem is ancient and universal! 

I grew up on English language poetry—line upon line, volume upon volume, year upon year of it.  Ingrained in my soul are lines from classic narratives such as:

“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding . . .

Riding . . . riding,

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.”

Alfred Noyes, “The Highwayman”

The spell binding quality of the narrative is unknown to many today; yet it is familiar to the youngest child whose parents have the good sense to read aloud to him or her from small babyhood on.  I have grandsons who love poetry, and write verses with ease, because their mother read to them from Day One—as she nursed them.  Children love narratives and any other poetry containing rhyme and meter.  Even an extremely active child will slow down and go dreamy eyed in the presence of a real poem—which, when read with sensitivity, is a form of music!

Perhaps many of us who write poetry today tend to eschew structure in our lines because of the Greeting Card Phobia!  Greeting cards are fun to receive, and I confess I sometimes send them to friends and family members.  But what is inside a greeting card is normally so generic and predictable, it deserves the classification of TRITE!  We poets tend to shrink from producing anything that might read like a greeting card! 

I know that I have written a number of “poems” which are not really poems at all; rather they are prose paragraphs strung out in lines to resemble a poem!  Contemporary poetry can abound in figurative language, apt metaphors, and depth of content.  Yet if you were to unstring some of my poems, and format them into paragraphs, you would be  struck by their “prosy-ness”!

Surrounded in my home by stacks and shelves laden with centuries of great poetry, I continually fill my hunger with pages from the past.  I honor my “debt” to our English language heritage by immersion—and thereby feed my eager soul in the process!

Margaret L. Been, ©2012

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