The Ballad Stuck in My Head

I’ve been reading a lot of formal poetry lately, thanks mostly – and perhaps surprisingly – to the upcoming Cowboy/Western issue. Cowboys love their meter and rhyme. Poetry sprung up 50,000+ years ago as a pneumonic device for people who hadn’t yet invented the ballpoint pen (not to mention the ball itself), and verse became the first medium for transgenerational knowledge. Tibetan monks still memorize hundreds of thousands of lines of sacred text by putting the words to a beat. (I never understand why people are surprised to see poets reciting from memory at readings – in many ways, that was always the point.)

Out on the range – and I hope I’m not being too much of a greenhorn with this explanation – ranchers and wranglers have kept up this oral tradition. Setting up camp at night in the middle of nowhere, with only the supplies you can carry on your horse, entertainment is hard to come by. Maybe you have a book to read by the fire. Maybe just a harmonica, a flask of whiskey, and the stars. So it’s no surprise cowboys started turning to poetry, much the same way I mumble poems to myself as I’m folding clothes at the Laundromat instead of watching Oprah. I read somewhere, though I can’t find the link now, that the tobacco companies started tucking poems into their tins, like the plastic prize in a cereal box. But if you want to keep yourself entertained for weeks at a time, you’re going to need a lot of poems, you’re going to need to write some of your own, then remember them, so you can entertain your friends.

The most common form in the west, like most everywhere else in the English world, was the ballad—think of your typical church hymn: quatrains alternating between four and three beats, rhymed ABAB. The ballad is so common, in fact, that it’s also called “common verse”—and with all the rhymes and repetitions, no form has more pneumonic cues. Fit a good story into the ballad form, and suddenly you’ve got a good storyteller. And the tradition is alive and thriving even into the Internet Age.

So I’ve been reading a lot of ballads lately. Not all cowboy poets write in form, but a lot of them do, and maybe a third of all submissions are suddenly fitting this mold. And it works. I’m a foot-tapping poetaster – I’ve never been intensely interested in adding accent marks and counting beats, but even in free verse there’s always a rhythm I’m listening to, and if a word is off, if there’s one syllable that doesn’t seem to fit, the poem makes a sound like The Gong Show, with similar consequences.

Now we’re getting to the point of this post, because I’m wondering if there are other foot-tapping poets out there, or if this is just something that happens to me:

I’ll be reading three ballads in a row, say, and then I’ll go back to a standard, contemporary free verse poem, one that might be quite good, and suddenly it sounds awful. I can’t stop myself from song-singing lines that weren’t meant to be read that way, from waiting for the rhyme that never comes. At this point, even a bad rhyme would sound better than no rhyme at all. I find I have to keep cleansing my ear’s palate – slap myself in the face, gurgle some mouthwash, run around the block.

It reminds me of another quirk of the brain, that’s either normal, or makes me a freak. If I’m walking or jogging, and I start counting my steps, 1, 2, 3, I can’t stop! I’ll get into the hundreds, doing all sorts of mental gymnastics before I can get The Count out of my head. Does that happen to everyone?

Anyway, it’s gotten to the point where I have to group the ballads out of a stack of submissions and read them last. As soon as I see a bit of meter or an end rhyme, I banish it to quarantine ASAP, lest I catch the sonic virus and contaminate all the others.

What’s even more interesting, though, is that it’s never unpleasant to go in the other direction – free verse never taints the ballad. You never trip over an expected foot. Couple this with the feeling of perfection in a really great sonnet, a purity rarely felt reading contemporary poetry, and I can’t help but wonder, briefly, if there’s a superiority to form.

But then I remember the kind of songs that get stuck in your head – what the Germans call “earworms.” They’re always commercial jingles, or the Village People, or the Macarena. They’re never Leonard Cohen.

Before I offend the cowboys or the formalists, I’m not saying ballads should be banished to Hallmark cards and television commercials. It’s just a reminder that memorability is not synonymous with quality. If something is worth remembering, and it’s easy to do so – hey, bonus points. But memory is a sword, not a knife.

I’d really just like to know – does formal verse get stuck in your head, too? Can you go from John Donne to Stephen Dunn without getting all screwy in the head?

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