Thursday, October 18, 2018

B.J. Lee: The Ballad


Grab a pint and lend an ear . . . 

I'm delighted to welcome TLD contributor B.J. Lee back to the poetry tent. (As you can see, the party's already begun!) 

I'm especially excited because the poetry form B.J. will be talking about today is the ballad. The ballad is an ideal storytelling form, and since Calef Brown's challenge this month is to write a poem that tells the story of two anthropomorphic objects, the timing is perfect to give this form a try!

The content of today's post was first published on B.J.'s blog Blue Window, which hasn't been very active as of late, but is still a wonderful resource.

I also recommend clicking HERE to read B.J.'s first TLD contributor post about the roundel (which, incidentally, might also be an interesting choice for this month's challenge).

Take it away, B.J.!

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I enjoy writing in forms and learning about forms and have written several ballads. The ballad is defined as:
"a form that comes in four-line verses, usually alternating between four and three beats to [the] line. The word comes from ballare, the Italian for “to dance’ (same root as ballet, ballerina and ball)." 
                     ~ Stephen Fry, "The Ode Less Travelled"

Another important aspect of the ballad is that it tells a story.

This one is about my naughty toy poodle, Lulu, may she rest in peace.
Here's a photo of the little stinker:

She looks all innocent, but she is definitely thinking
her Machiavellian thoughts and plotting her next dastardly scheme!

The Ballad of the Naughty Poodle

I’ll tell you a story of a dog in her glory—
the naughty toy poodle named Lulu.
But first let me say, do not get in her way
or she may put one over on you too.

Although she’s petite and may strike you as sweet,
believe me, her mind’s always cooking
up schemes to sneak by and eat my potpie
the minute she sees I’m not looking.

I tell her to stay but she does not obey
and makes her way down floor by floor.
She shreds paper towels with claws like an owl’s.
When spotted, she speeds out the door.

She’ll stretch and she’ll yawn but then once I am gone,
Lulu tips over the trash.
On the floor I find mustard mixed in with the custard.
It’s clear she’s been having a bash!

She lands with a leap in the composting heap
no matter how loudly I yell.
I shout, “You're in trouble, come here on the double.”
I hold my nose—wow—does she smell!

I give her a scrub in the claw-footed tub.
She splashes the suds in my face.
When I grab for a towel, she lets out a howl
and runs away like it’s a race.

Yes, this small, dirty dog redefines the word ‘hog.’
She’s always escaping my clutches.
And as hard as I try, the house is a sty—
just some of the little swine’s touches.

© 2010 B.J. Lee. All Rights Reserved.
First published in “Umbrella Journal’s Bumbershoot Annual” August, 2010

The ballad comes to us from song and folk traditions and many, many popular songs are ballads. Here is the first stanza from “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, ©1976:

Image by R. LeLievre (S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online)

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called “Gitche Gumme.”
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

Read the rest of the poem HERE or listen to the musical version HERE.

Typically a ballad will rhyme either abab or abcb if it is in quatrains.  Gordon has chosen the latter and so have I.

Some books and websites define ballads as being typically written in iambic meter


but Gordon broke that rule, giving us anapestic meter:

dadaDUMdadaDUMdadaDUMdaDUMda  (with an extra syllable at the end—a feminine ending).

My poem, above, is also written in anapestic meter (with some feminine endings as well as internal rhyme).
From Through the Looking Glass (1902)

I have also seen ballads arranged in sestets (6 lines to a stanza). A good example is "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by Lewis Carroll (this one is iambic).

The Walrus and the Carpenter
were walking close at hand.
They wept like anything to see
such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
they said, “it would be grand.”

Read the rest of the poem HERE.

And, I have seen ballads written with seven beats to the line, although arguably, each line could be broken down into two lines of four and then three beats.  Here is a stanza from Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (anapestic):

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

Read the rest of the poem HERE or listen to the poem being read by Ed Begley below.

No matter what decision you make regarding format and meter, ballads are a fun choice if you wish to tell a story in your poem.

Thanks so much, B.J.! 

I hope we'll see at least a couple of ballads for this month's challenge, but feel free to share your non-DMC ballads in the comments if you'd like.

(B.J. also asked me to let you know that she'll be away at a conference this weekend but looks forward to reading and responding to your comments on Monday.)

B.J. Lee’s debut picture book, There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth, is forthcoming from Pelican Publishing (Spring, 2019). She has written poems for many anthologies, including Construction People (ed. Lee Bennett Hopkins), The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry, National Geographic’s Poetry of US (ed. J. Patrick Lewis), One Minute Till Bedtime (ed. Kenn Nesbitt), as well as popular children’s magazines. Visit B.J. at her website.

Calef Brown's DMC challenge is to write a poem that tells the story of two anthropomorphized objects. Despite a late start, the October 2018 padlet is already quite active! Make sure to add your poem by October 31st. Our featured daily ditties this week were by Tabatha Yeatts, Dianne Moritz, Angelique Pacheco, and David McMullin. The wrap-up celebration will be on Friday, November 2nd, so that I can accommodate as many daily ditties this month as possible.
Brenda Davis Harsham is hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup at Friendly Fairy Tales. It's the bee's knees—you won't want to miss it!


  1. Thanks much for featuring my post, Michelle! It looks great and it was really fun to revisit the ballad, one of my favorite forms. I hope you do see some DMC challenge poems written as ballads!They are really fun to write and would work well for Calef's challenge!

  2. As always, reading this blog gives me all kinds of learning and fun. Thank you both for the ballad lesson. I think the best part of your ballad, B.J., is that I can just tell you had fun with it! I can imagine you giggling away as you found the rhymes and tapped your feet with the beat. That Lulu, she may be resting in peace...but are those she's resting peace? LOL. Great ballad. Thanks!

    1. Ha ha ha Linda, right you are! Wherever she is you can be sure no one is having any peace.

  3. Oh that Lulu! What fun. And how lovely to see that BJ has a picture book forthcoming... exciting! Thanks for sharing, Michelle. xo

  4. Hi B.J., fun to see you here, to read about dear Lulu, naughty that she was (It’s clear she’s been having a bash!) and other ballad ideas. I''ll note this for further writing!

    1. Oh yes she’s been having a bash all right! Good to see you here.

  5. Hi B.J.! Your rhythms are impeccable! I especially like "She shreds paper towels with claws like an owl’s," maybe because my Lucy has similar claws. Lulu sounds like she was a handful.

    1. Thank you Tabatha! Sound like Lucy and Lulu were cut from the same cloth.

  6. The Ballad of the Naughty Poodle is so cute. Wonderful examples and a great form to try. Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Rosi, glad you enjoyed it!

  7. Love how your Lulu inspired this mischievous poem and how it glides through seamlessly. Thanks for all the info on ballads too!

  8. Your posts always teach me so much, BJ! Thanks for a thoroughly delightful poem and for furthering my understanding of ballads.

  9. Ballads are such fun to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the Ballad of the Naughty Poodle! I just might have to try my hand at writing one.