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Archive for the ‘The ingredients of great 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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Winter Breakup.jpg 2  “To think to know the country and not know

    The hillside on the day the sun lets go 

    Ten thousand lizards out of snow!”  Robert Frost, A Hillside Thaw

Although I admit to sometimes dreaming about warm, sunny places during our long Northern winters, I would not chose to trade my home locale with anyone—anywhere, anytime (except for an occasional week or two in New Mexico).

I truly wonder if friends who live in warm places ever experience springtime euphoria—that crazy, headlong, potentially mindless and blithery joy known as SPRING FEVER, when poetry floods one’s soul!  Perhaps that euphoria is common in four season climates around the world.  Certainly in the USA, where April has been designated as NATIONAL POETRY MONTH!

Anticipating April, while loving every remaining moment of tumultuous Wisconsin March, here are some snatches of poems from kindred souls—in addition to the above lines from one of my most beloved kindred spirit poets, Robert Frost.  Also I’ll plug in some of my watercolor renderings.  The marriage of a poem and a painting is called Ekphrasis.

—————————————————————————————————

“The Skies can’t keep their secret!

They tell it to the Hills –

The hills just tell the Orchards –

And they – the Daffodils!”  Emily Dickinson, #191

Traces 2

“I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore . . . .” 

William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innesfree

Homeward Bound--1

“Now as I was young and easy under the apple bough

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green . . . .”

Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

. . . the dawn's early light

“O April, full of breath, have pity on us!

Pale where the winter like a stone has been lifted away, we

        emerge like yellow grass.

Be for a moment quiet, buffet us not, have pity on us,

Till the green come back into the vein, till the giddiness pass.” 

Edna St. Vincent Millay, Northern April

From Seed

These are only a whisper of the many poems and poets whom I read again and again—immersed in the introspections, nuances, innuendoes, and life metaphors gleaned from a sensitivity to the turning of the year.  I believe that sensitivity is shared by most poetic four-season souls!

Margaret L. Been, Spring 2015

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“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

In my lifetime I’ve read English language poetry, French poetry in the original French, and the poems of many world cultures in translation.  My passion for the poetic voice grows as I age.  There are many poets (including me) and poems (including mine).  But then there are GREAT POETS AND GREAT POEMS!   I have volumes of “GREAT”, and I’m wearing the pages down while building my soul with reading.

Of all the poets I love—including John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Butler Yeats, John Masefield, Dylan Thomas, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others—two rise to the top like cream:  William Shakespeare and Robert Frost.

The significant feature that Shakespeare and Frost have in common is a combination of clarity and simplicity, clothed in rhyme and meter which the music loving reader can never forget.  The clarity of message has “holding power”, as lasting insights are gleaned and preserved from the simplicity of language used by these two poets.  There is no embellishment, no embroidery work in their verse—no tricks to stumble over and confuse the reader, unless you can call alliteration a “trick”.  I don’t think it is, any more than the classic use of harmonic chords in a musical composition could be called a “trick”. 

Clarity is impossible apart from simplicity.  Consider the plain language used by both Shakespeare (if you discount a few archaic words like “forsooth”) and Frost.  Plain language conveys life wisdom, as nothing else on earth can do.  Apart from reflecting on life wisdom, we humans cannot live sensitively and circumspectly as we were designed to live.  When plain language is embodied in soul-imprinting rhyme and meter, the reader grows in his or her understanding of life!  Here is a case in point:

“Blow blow, thou winter wind.

Thou are not so unkind

As man’s ingratitude;

Thy tooth is not so keen,

Because thou art not seen,

Although thy breath be rude.”

William Shakespeare, AS YOU LIKE IT

Simple English words, clarity of meaning, and universal life wisdom—-encompassing many cultures and customs!

Robert Frost spins his life messages in earthy symbols and metaphors, which any lover of poetry (and nature) can easily decipher.  “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” (inviting the poet to retreat and give up,  or just “get away from it all”).  “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep . . . .”  (The poet cannot give up because he has people who need him, loved ones who depend on him, work yet to be done on earth). 

Metaphors and symbols are never obscure when 1) They are based on widely familiar visuals, 2) They are expressed in plain language, and 3) They speak to universal emotions and issues.  Great poetry may be profoundly personal, but it is never entropic; it is universal in scope.  Great poetry is simple, clear, understated, and it is musicalhence its lasting power.  Just as haunting scores (such as the melodies from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) role around in our head, structured poetry stays in our mind.  Great poetry is unforgettable.

Robert Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” at what may have been the darkest hour of his personal life.  He wanted to give up, but he didn’t.  Instead he focused on the fact that he had promises to keep.  Dark times are a human universal.  You have dark times.  I have dark times.  But like the poet, we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep!  We are inspired and uplifted by Robert Frost’s resolve!

Clarity, Simplicity, Musicality, Wisdom:  These are the ingredients of a fine poem.  These are also some of the ingredients of a good life!  The ages have provided a wealth of great poetry.  The world would do well to slow down, read the work of past poets, and reflect!

Margaret L. Been, ©2011

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