Monday, January 10, 2005


Last Monday, I asked, of the appearance of a half dozen ballads showing up among the 47 performances at the MLA off-site reading, “Why the resurgence of a template that is nearly 400 years old?” Norman Finkelstein, one of the balladeers, responded in the comments box.* Rachel Blau DuPlessis, another balladeer, offers her perspective today. Some of what follows has been adapted from her forthcoming Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work:


Why the ballad? It has to do with the politics of the form — but like many such politics, this form is not a one way street, and uses a double figuration. I’m going to emphasize one part of that figuration, but the poems we heard might not fit this genre information perfectly. Here’s a definition first. "A ballad is a [folk] song that tells a story with stress on the crucial situation, tells it by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias." (Alan Bold 1979). I’ve bracketed the word [folk], since basically Susan Stewart has argued that ballads had single authors, but ones who for various reasons (gender is one) did not make their authorship public. (Hence “folk” or collective authorship is a myth, although different people might add to a particular ballad and change it as it is transmitted.) When a particular named, non-anonymous poet writes a ballad in imitation of what used to be thought of as “folk” work, we are in the realm of the literary ballad. It probably should be added that there is a stock stanza — of 4,3,4,3 stresses and b rhymes — that defines the ballad formally, but need not be adhered to slavishly.


Certain elements of the ballad might have had a particular intellectual and emotional appeal now. For one, there is little of the personally expressive "I" in them, appealing to a long-standing contemporary coolness to romantic subjectivity. The “I” of the ballad speaks from a place of collective articulation by mixing first person statements with third person observation. The politics of the ballad (hard to generalize on this, but I will anyway) or the politics of the form, or the ideological stance implied is ethical witness without a lot of social power — except the power of that witness and that song. The implied speaker may not have a lot of social power at the moment of the song — except the power of the song (like Mary Hamilton — the lady-in-waiting who committed infanticide, in the old ballad).


Not only do ballads override the claims of ego, the personal, the poem as personal expression, they also leap between materials, do not back and fill narratively, are low on exposition. A traditional description of the ballad is “leaping” and “lingering” words (in Francis Gummere, 1907) that refer to its narrative tactics. Lingering occurs with the use of stanzas identical except for several pivotal words; repetition is a very powerful tactic in poetry, and the deliberate unfolding one may get from incremental repetition in the ballad offers a devastating emphasis on one’s point (I seem to remember Mike Magee’s poem working this way). Leaping is the narrative tactic of cutting to the chase, skipping exposition. Leaping involves a springing forward, the omission of details, the overlooking of connective and explanatory materials, a lack of causality, the disregard of elaborate narratives of time and place. At the same time, there is an interesting relation for us contemporaries between imagist/objectivist tactics of selection, condensation and juxtaposition and ballad tactics of "leaping" and "lingering." Like the apparently anti-rhetorical poetics of imagism, the ballad works by the caveat against excessive words, by condensation and intentness of the framing of significant images. By means of the “leaping” and “lingering,” ballads move with buried, compacted affect. They run on inference.


The ideology of the ballad form is an ethical witness about political power in relation to which one is somewhat powerless. The ballad engineers a partial reversal of this situation, because by witness, by song, one reclaims cultural (inspiring, and in rare cases political) power. Traditional and literary ballads are good for expressing the implacability of the things that happen, especially in personal relations involving grief, violent emotions, or events which one could not prevent — perhaps because one always already was politically disenfranchised. Most ballads can be summed up by the phrase: something dreadful happened, something driven by a fatedness that cannot be stopped or even explained. Sometimes this fatedness is a very bad politics, like the politics of racism in Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown’s ballads; fate there is driven by an often unnamed white racism, but it might as well be fate in its dreadful, unstoppable effects. Sometimes the fatedness involves gender assumptions (i.e. sexual politics), as in Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The tension between fate and politics is a dialectical edge in the ballad.


And the narrative is absolutized. Actions have little background or motivation. Ballads do not tell you why something happened in a cause and effect sense (why did Lord Randall’s lover poison him? exactly why did Sir Patrick Spens get sent off when the king knew he would have to sail on a dangerous, winter ocean?). Rather, ballads offer images that it happened — eels in frying pan; courtly, fashionable shoes floating on salt water. One rarely hears answers to the question "Why." But (in part as a substitute) one hears many answers to the question "How." So ballads spotlight circumstantialities names, places, times, colors of dresses — but leave motivation, psychology, and rationales totally in shadow. We get, in ballads, the facts and the effects, not the causes. This gives a sense of inevitability, implacability, an a-judgmental stance, or a judgment very oblique and almost affectless. This can be Brechtian in impact — the contradictions travel out of the art work into our space. This is like Charles Bernstein’s uses of nursery rhymes and ballads (i.e. doubling William Blake’s use) in something like “the boy soprano” in With Strings, or the amazing “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” (in Republics of Reality).


The ballad therefore has the possibility of a class figuration. It can be used by, or can sing of, the relatively powerless, those who, for reasons of positionality (woman to cruel man; man to vampish woman; commander to king; pregnant lady-in-waiting to court; laborer to exploitative boss), have a minimum of choice or agency, or those who for analytic reasons wish to sing of that divestment of agency. Ballads condense and focus areas of emotion and social pain, yet they are rather uncomplaining. Ballads are sometimes like epitaphs and revenants at once — telling you what social forces are “buried” at a site and what ghosts have been created — the ballads of Sterling Brown are like this. The ballad's implacability can express the freezing of divested social agency into fate.


YET this is not a complete description of the ways the ballad was being used in the reading in Philly; there is also a tradition of the protest song that was being alluded to. “Ballad of the Girlie Man” (by Charles) hardly lacked judgment, and rage. To say the least. So this kind of poem can also be used to protest our sense of plunder and being ripped off; we want our social agency, we want our politics to be heard, we want our understandings to matter. To complete my statement about “the freezing of social agency into fate,” I’d want to say that the ballad can also express the heating up of our sense of disenfranchised social agency into political outrage. And that’s how I think a number of us were using it on December 29, 2004, in Philadelphia.

* Squawkbox has not been very reliable of late.