When I went on sabbatical a year ago last May, one goal I had was to write a poem each week, adopting a different form of poetry each week. As the weeks and months went by, I had fun writing lots of different kinds of poems– limericks and double dactyls and haikus to begin with, then sonnets, and so on. One form I tried and failed many times to write was one of the simplest: the ballad. Stock-in-trade of plangent singer-songwriters everywhere, I just couldn’t write one that didn’t sound trite or stupid. Funny ones, sure. But serious ones? Seriously.

My difficulty with this form made me gain measures upon measures of respect for all those songwriters. Sure, some really dumb ballad lyrics were helped along and probably carried by great melodies, a chunky guitar riff, or even some crazy funky drumming, but the words remain.

And then, there are the poets who specialized in the ballad. I’d already learned to admire these poets, but my experience trying to write this form– stanzas of four lines each, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and rhymed iambic trimeter– made me realize that this form, so easy to write, is one of the hardest to write well. My cap’s off to you, Emily Dickinson, who wrote over a thousand of these suckers, each one seemingly more simple yet more profound than the last. Here’s one that gets at the heart of the matter:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

I just couldn’t put the Weekly Poem Project to bed without writing a ballad. It just didn’t seem like I’d finished the project without having written one. This weekend, a line finally came to me, and I put a poem together. It is workmanlike at best, and maybe ends up benefiting from not taking itself too seriously, but it seems to fit the subject. The subject is my dog, Lucy.

She is totally unremarkable in every way, and is actually one of the dumbest animals I have ever known. However, I am very attached to her. And I will say– she does her job, which is basically to bark loudly at people who don’t belong in our house, and to remind me that life, in the end, is really just about eating, sleeping, and getting some attention. Many possibilities, I’ve discovered, dwell here.

Lucy

My dog is not loyal, or wise.
She pricks her ears up smart
If there should be a beefsteak near.
In this, there is no art.

She eschews begging, not because
To do so would be crass.
It just never occurred to her
To send a hint, or ask.

She enjoys a rub behind the ears,
A walk is always nice.
Baths, she’s willing to tolerate.
She’s somewhat afraid of mice.

On questions of philosophy
She’s troubled not one bit.
This is why she gives me joy.
I count on her for this.

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2 thoughts on “Weekly Poem Project: the ballad, at last

  1. Oh I love your ballad to Lucy! Hats off to you, Jean Lee Cole, intrepid poet, citizen, friend. I am inspired. As you know, pet tributes are nothing new to me, but now you’ve given me a form. Thank you and I’m sorry. I have had so many pets….

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    1. I hope I didn’t give the impression that Lucy was no more! She actually just asked to be let out so that she could make sure there was nothing to bark at. (There wasn’t.)

      Jenny, I’m not sure if a ballad is really the right form for any of your pets. The ones I knew were so much more epic. If it were a ballad, it’d have to be a long one for either Zeus or Yeti … like a corrido. I think that would work for Yeti. Zeus would need a mock-epic, at least. Maybe a sonnet cycle.

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