My daughter told me about the mass killing in Orlando in the car Sunday, as we drove up Route 81 on an errand. We bought summer shorts and solar lights for the back walkway, ate pho and spring rolls, stopped at a bookstore, drove home, and she kept updating me all evening. Mostly Latino and LGBT, she said. The orange guy says ban Muslim immigrants. Countries are issuing travel advisories against the U.S.: it’s not safe here.
Monday, I found myself flipping back and forth between online news and the strange old book I bought in Staunton, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, Collected Under the Auspices of the Virginia Folklore Society, edited by Arthur Kyle Davis and published in 1929. I’m no ballad-scholar but they tell sad stories in verse, usually beginning at the end. “There is never an authoritative text,” wrote Robert Graves about the folk ballad, continuing, “it is incomplete without music…it does not moralize or preach or express any partisan bias.” In my “Introduction to Poetry” course, we spend a day looking first at folk ballads and then at literary uses of the form–not-anonymous ballad-like poems circulated in print. We discuss Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” about a 1963 church bombing, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Emmett Till poems. Randall’s ballad, metered and rhymed, has that communal quality of a song one might pass down through generations. Brooks’ “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” instead, blasts that cultural inheritance apart, along with all the racist, gendered baggage it carries about lily-white maids and dark villains. Both poems draw force in different ways from the old tropes and channel that power against contemporary violence.
It’s hard to write a literary ballad. Strict quatrains can sound too predictable now, too light; veer from familiarity, though, and you’ve lost continuity with the old songs. The latter is sometimes better, yet form’s history can help you carry a hard burden. I’m trying to draft a ballad about the hate crime at the Pulse nightclub, but the results so far are somehow both raw and over-intellectual.
To do better, I keep going back to the smoother cadences preserved in this book. There was a vogue, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for collecting traces of a vanishing folk culture, and I’m glad, even if I personally, as a woman, wouldn’t have been safe tramping around the mountains and asking strangers what old airs they knew. But this particular collection was also an attempt by white people to conserve (create?) a particularly Scots-Irish heritage. These folklorists collected British, Scottish, and Irish songs only, further stipulating that they must be orally transmitted, unpolluted by print. Interesting, to discover what songs made that crossing and how they changed. Yet there’s no such thing as media purity, then or now–print and oral cultures intersect all the time. Nor are other kinds of inheritance pure. Listen as the editor, in his introduction, gives away his bias:
“The nearest approach to an American body of folk-lore is the folk-lore of European origin transplanted and adapted in America–unless, forsooth, we should prefer to regard as representatively American the tribal and ceremonial songs of the Red Indian, which are American in no sense except the geographical, or the folk-songs of the Negro, which, beautiful as they often are, are obviously the heritage of the ‘Homo Africanus’ transplanted in America, not the possession of our white majority.”
Forsooth! This book was being assembled as Virginia was implementing its eugenics laws, sterilizing citizens for being indigenous, black, or otherwise American in no sense except, gee, the geographical, legal, logical, and moral. Terms like “Red Indian” and “Homo Africanus” construct and exaggerate difference for rhetorical effect, as if the so-called races belong to different species.
Now flash forward to one 21st century version of the eugenics program: a current candidate’s proposed wall. Barrier contraception writ large. None of it works–no poem or country has ever been pure, and none ever will be, thank heaven–but people do harm striving for purity anyway.
I’ll keep working on my ballad, getting my own hands dirty, as I look for other ways to protest the fear and hatred ruining us. Last weekend’s horror is not particularly my story to tell, but that’s the point of ballads–they’re all our stories, the young man whose mind goes wrong, hopes ruined, lovers separated by violence, children forever lost to mothers wild with grief. To paraphrase Brooks, the Pulse tragedy has the beat inevitable; the old form is latent in the event, in its very needlessness. How many times do assault rifles have to fire in our public spaces before U.S. politicians repudiate the NRA? As in the ballad “Lord Randal”–sometimes converted by Virginians into “Johnnie Randolph”–I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down.
Two ballads for the road. First, as I said, contemporary literary ballads are hard to write, but I did just publish a poem influenced by the form. It’s in a Mezzo Cammin portfolio of poems responding to Edna St. Vincent Millay; the story it tells is Millay’s (successful) attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy by consuming abortive herbs in Dorset.
Second, from my new-old book: it turns out that one of the few ballad variants sourced to Lexington is “Sir Hugh”, sometimes called “The Jew’s Daughter,” or, in a sanitized version, “The Fatal Flower Garden.” I can’t bring myself to type it out so I’ve linked to a similar version to the one contributed by “Mr. and Mrs. George McLaughlin” in 1916 (I live very near McLaughlin St.). It tells of a Christian boy whose ball goes over a wall into “the old Jew’s garden.” Tempted by his neighbor’s daughter, the boy ventures after it and is brutally murdered. “Sir Hugh” preserves and promotes the anti-Semitism of medieval Europe; its tale was used to justify pogroms. It’s also, in its toxic way, haunting. Ballads can poison as well as console us–promote violence as well as deplore it. Impure.
7 responses to “In favor of impurity, or, I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down”
Ballads are an old obsession of mine. I assume you’ve read Jake Adam York’s “Murder Ballads”?
You know, I’ve only read a few in magazines–I’ll put the book on my list, though.
Thank you for your post. As a painter, it is helpful to read about how a poet is struggling with responding to our times, all the bad news and overripe fears.
Glad to hear it–thanks!
Beautifully done. Thanks.
Thank you, Mary!
Very nice. I am sure just writing the post was cathartic. I hope writing the ballad is too.