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.



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