Friday, March 31, 2006

Reader's Diary #66- Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve (editors): In Fine Form (up to Couplets)

I've just completed the sections on ballads and blues. Before I get into that, I'd like to say how much I appreciate the layout of this book. Each section is devoted to a specific genre of form poetry and the introductions discuss what the particular form is and how to recognize it. More impressively, they summarize their inroduction with a very user-friendly reference with the headings:

1. Stanzas: which describes the number of and type of stanzas
2. Metre: basically describes the rhythm and stresses
3. Rhyme: Describes what rhyming scheme is used (ex. aab)
4. Repetition: Is repetition used and if so, how?
5. Distinguishing Features: Not always added as heading unless there are other features worthy of mention.

They are also careful to point out that many poets take a lot of liberties with these forms. As anyone familiar with Musicmatch Jukebox or Ipods know, a lot of music (ex., Signia, Tanya Tagaq, and William Orbit, etc, etc, etc) is very difficult to classify- likewise for poetry. But from my very limited perspective Braid and Shreve do an admirable job grouping these poems and if something skews very far from the form under which they have it listed, they usually defend their choices quite convincingly.

In terms of ballads, I realized quite quickly that it's not far from what most amateur poets try to write and do miserably. You know the ones; some embarrassing inlaw reads one at every wedding reception, "When your lovely bride was two/ she thought she'd take a stroll/ she wandered from her parents/ and on them it took a toll." Yuck. Yuck. Yuck. Cheesy. Awkward phrasing. And so forth. But it doesn't stop people from writing them (and in the case of Twillingater Jack May, even publishing similar drivel in the local newspaper). Except for Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee" (which is in this book minus the wonderful Ted Harrison artwork that has accompanied it in recent publications), I thought I didn't like this type of poetry. However, I did enjoy a lot of those included in this collection. Maybe I just don't like bad ballads. Asides from the aforementioned Service poem, Dennis Lee's "1838" stands out as a great. I didn't know any Dennis Lee poems except for the children's poems, "Alligator Pie", "Garbage Delight" and the now (needlessly) infamous collection "Alligator Stew". However, the best ballad (perhaps even better than "Sam McGee"), is E. J. Pratt's "The Lee Shore". This poem is genius. Ballad was the only form this poem could take and Pratt uses it masterfully. If you don't know it, follow the link and read it. You must.

The second section (which I knew as a genre of music but not poetry) is blues. And while I like some blues music (John Lee Hooker, Susan Tedeschi, and so forth), I don't think I'm a huge fan of it as poetry. At least not the ones chosen by Braid and Shreve. I didn't hate them but aside from the occasional smirk over not-so-subtle sexual innuendos (in particular, George Elliott Clarke's "King Bee Blues") they seem quite unremarkable. Plus, despite Braid and Shreve describing the characteristics of the traditional form , some of these were so far removed from the tradition that I don't even see how they fit. Especially "Blues" by Christine Wiesenthal. Except for the title and sexual content, I'm not convinced it fits in this classification. It's not a bad poem mind you, just not blues.

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