7: Ballade

The ballade was one of the principal forms of music and poetry in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France. Not to be confused with the ballad, the ballade contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter concluding stanza, or envoi. All four stanzas have identical final refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was often solemn and formal, with elaborate symbolism and classical references. – Poets.org

February Ballade
(to Janet Frame)

You admired the icicles, their hardness
A sign of their courage, a holding true
And, for you, their melting was a sadness.
You felt their form integral, their selves too
Fragile to survive that state change. You knew
About losing identity – the blow
Of the leucotome always behind you –
But I’m glad to see the icicles go.

I find them lovely, gleaming in darkness
Or brilliant against the afternoon blue –
Austere consolations for day’s shortness.
Yes, I love those suspended falls that grew
Along desire lines of gravity – who
Wouldn’t? And that well-worn winter tableau
Is a comfort when our comforts are few,
Yet I’m glad to see the icicles go.

Those hard hearts are brittle, sharpness
Is a refusal to be made anew,
And those inborn tears are not sad softness
But second, third, nth selves overdue.
Melting is the common fate: youth, flesh, dew,
And such, the sum (less entropy) zero.
For me, the self is a turning into
So I’m glad to see the icicles go.

I’ve been thinking about Janet Frame’s “The Icicles” a lot over the last few months, with the snowy/icy winter we’ve had and the tendency of my current apartment building, which is very poorly insulated, to have huge icicles (see photo). I took the ballade as my chance to clarify these thoughts., trying to honour Frame’s poem while articulating my own interpretation. I read “The Icicles” here in term’s of the now-famous story about Frame’s narrowly averted lobotomy (a leucotome is the instrument used to perform the procedure, the “blow” being when the instrument is driven through the skull into the brain). Frame had struggled with mental health problems for years and was scheduled for a lobotomy, which was cancelled only days out when Frame’s first book won a major literary prize. Perhaps it’s presumptuous of me to read this in, but it seems to me that someone who’s been days away from losing a significant part of themselves – in the most concrete, literal way – would have good reason to prize coherent identity and lament the loss of self.

By far the toughest part of the poem was rhyming so heavily on the same sounds, especially the twelve “B” rhymes (lines 2,4,5 & 7 of each stanza) – which is why there isn’t an envoi stanza. I really like the sound effect of all that repetitive rhyming though, so I think it was worth the effort. Rather than classical references I have scientific references, which seems to me a reasonable updating of world-views.

Also, desire lines isn’t a poetic turn of phrase – it’s a technical term for a path created by foot traffic, usually representing the shortest path between two points, so those bare lines you see across parks or institutional lawns where everyone cuts across. Desire lines are the neatest and I’m really glad I found a place for them in one of these poems.



6: Ballad

A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. – Wikipedia

Five Miles In
(a retelling of Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’)

It was a hot, weary Friday—
They didn’t think it a sin
To go fishing for the weekend
So they walked five miles in

Those four family men
They didn’t think it a sin
To camp by the Naches river
So they walked five miles in

They found her in the river then
(who wouldn’t think it a sin?)
Dead and naked in the water.
Oh, they’d walked five miles in

They talked it over, what to do
They didn’t think it a sin
It was late and they were tired
And they’d walked five miles in

To leave her body floating there
They didn’t think it a sin
So much water so close to home
But they’d walked five miles in

Her poor, bare flesh washed by the tide
They didn’t think it a sin
The water was terribly cold.
Oh, they’d walked five miles in

On Saturday they fished and drank,
They didn’t think it a sin,
Washed their dishes by her body
Oh, they’d walked five miles in.

On Sunday the men slept in late
They didn’t think it a sin
They drank, they fished, and packed up camp
Then they walked five miles out

They left her on the riverbank,
They didn’t think it a sin,
Fishing line tied around her wrist
Because they’d walked five miles in

They called the cops at a payphone
They didn’t think it a sin
Told them where to find her body,
On the river five miles in

To leave her body floating there
They didn’t think it a sin
So much water so close to home
But they’d walked five miles in

Ballads are such fun – they popular stories, essentially, but with all the fun of also being poems. I went with a murder ballad because I especially love that branch of the tradition, the one that dates back to broadside ballads about current crimes and that has carried cryptic, haunting and brutal stories like “The Knoxville Girl”  or “Lamkin.” I think one of the things that attractive about the murder ballad is the way they seem to sidestep any real explanation of the events, yielding to simply representing their violence as a kind of natural force – a pre-Enlightenment, pre-Freudian take on horror.

The repetitiveness of the form is great too, letting phrases and ideas slowly build and shift over the course of the narrative, like the son’s request to lie down in “Lord Randall” or the revelation of the origin of the refrain at the end of various versions of the “Twa Sisters” ballad.

I didn’t really feel comfortable writing about anything real and horrific so I did an adaptation of the Raymond Carver story, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” I really like this story and I’ve taught it a bunch of times (it works really well in units on feminism). The opaque mystery of the men’s awfulness at the center of the story is perfect for the ballad form. I chose the “excuse” of how far they were from the car as one of the refrain lines, with the idea that it became less and less plausible the more it was repeated.

As a bonus, here’s a video adaptation of the opening scene that one of my students made for a class project.

5: Univocalic lipogram (single-vowel poem)

A univocalic is a type of lipogrammatic constrained writing that uses only a single vowel, “A”, “E”, “I”, “O”, or “U”, and no others. – Wikipedia


the nestled sleep,
the feed’s smell,
the eggs’ feel.

This form initially struck me as shallow and gimmicky, so I approached it with the goal of finding some way to work meaningfully with this constraint, some way to make it about more than just being clever enough to do it. I read Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which is made of five chapters – one for each vowel – and exhausts, apparently, 98% of the available vocabulary for each vowel. Eunoia, though, only reinforced my dislike the form, being, to my mind, clever without being intelligent or wise (and also weirdly orientalist and misogynist for someone as young and well-educated as Bök). I got the impression that Bök was expecting me to be clutching at my pearls because his book wasn’t, I don’t know, Billy Collins or Tennyson. I’m all for a bit of the old épater le bourgeois but I feel like the particular bourgeois who would be shocked by Bök’s poem are long dead. But Eunoia sold well and got prizes, so other people clearly liked it.

I ultimately failed to find a way into this form, sadly, so I opted to write something as concrete and unpretentious as I could – to resist the tendency of the form to abstraction and cleverness. The only way to to do this is to keep the poem short enough to actually focus on some real referent. I chose hens because I was inspired by Anna’s lovely take on alexandrines, where she leverages the humbleness of the hen against the loftiness of Romantic ideals.

I also got some bonus anaphora in here because I guess that’s what happens when you’re working with a severely limited vocabulary.

4: Anaphora and aubade

The term “anaphora” comes from the Greek for “a carrying up or back,” and refers to a type of parallelism created when successive phrases or lines begin with the same words, often resembling a litany. The repetition can be as simple as a single word or as long as an entire phrase. As one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques, anaphora is used in much of the world’s religious and devotional poetry, including numerous Biblical Psalms. – Poets.org
Aubade: A love poem or song welcoming or lamenting the arrival of the dawn. The form originated in medieval France. – Poetry Foundation

Super Bowl Sunday

The skyline is rimmed with a fierce orange paling into a yet-dark sky
And the trees are ink-sketch fractals, bleeding into one flat tangle bridging the dim white      below and the dim blue-black above
And the snow is blank, inert, a solid whiteness erasing so much
And the streetlights echo the scattered houselights echo the brilliant rim of sky
And there’s a few cars, even this early, out on Dodge
And I make a pot of tea, the power light of the kettle burning a dim orange in the muted rental neutrals of my kitchen
And there’s a cloud – a knife, an eel, a battleship – drifting up from the southwest
And smoke from chimneys is blown, dense and heavy with the cold, in falling plumes
And the sparrow that’s nested beside my a/c window unit is my own small dawn chorus, its voice petulant, hoarse and breaking sweet
And the clean wheeling of ravens breaks the geometry of the trees, black against black, as their cries tear the silence
And it’s light enough to trip the automatic cut-off for the streetlights and to dull the houselights down so the sky alone is bright
And at first the sun could be taken for a belated streetlight, a dense orange wedge in a tangle of tree limbs
And it climbs and it pales and it stains the snow, the smoke, my hand around the teacup with gold


I’m doubling up anaphora and aubade this week, since I just ended up writing a poem about the dawn when I was looking for something to do with anaphora. I had started writing a poem about going back to NZ, having bought my plane tickets this week, which would have worked cleverly with the Greek meaning of “anaphora” – carrying back. It wasn’t really coming together though and I ended up writing this poem instead because I happened to be up early and saw a lovely sunrise. The great thing about sunrises (and sunsets) in winter here is that you get some colour back in the world. The snow is pretty and all but, as the picture below shows (the view from my living room), it can also be stark and drab.

I like the anaphora form for the aubade because the repetition of the “and” (which I love so much in the KJV bible), I think, captures the strange, breathless fastness and slowness of dawn, the way that it both rushes past too fast to fully experience it and yet seems to take so long to finally turn into day.