A description of three formal poetic forms and references to examples.
Writing poetry can be fun; frequently a poem is an emotional catharsis, rather like dumping a messy file drawer out on a surface and letting the parts fall where they may. Some poetry requires more planning.
The ballad is a venerable tradition in poetry. Usually, it is a series of quatrains—a verse of four lines which rhymes in abab pattern. The most common meter for a ballad is iambic pentameter, although it may vary. Sometimes it will include a refrain or repeating line. This may be the final line of each quatrain; or it may be an added couplet or even a repeating quatrain. Since ballads were originally written to be sung in a pre-literate society, the repetition drove home the point of the work; it also kept audience attention since it allowed for participation. Ballads tell a story. Sometimes the story is comic in theme, sometimes serious or sad. Frequently the story centers around a historical event or trend.
“Barbara Allen” is a well-known example of a ballad. The story centers around a heartless young woman who is apparently flirting with all the town lads. Young William, who is new in town, falls for this heartless beauty, but is spurned. He falls ill—plague, a duel or some such—“for the love of Barbara Allen”, and sends for the young woman. She is cold to him, but when she hears of his death pines away and joins him in the church graveyard. “Barbara Allen” is an excellent example of the ballad format where each verse is a quatrain, with a repeating refrain in the fourth line.
“Froggy went a-courtin’” is a good example of the comic ballad. Froggy courts a mouse, is granted consent by “Uncle Rat”, and the wedding party—complete with silly food for the banquet—is several verses long. The final fate of the entire wedding party and the bridal couple varies, but in every instance they come to an end before the day is out, and the listeners are told “If you want any more, you can sing it yourself.” This final line makes the song a good ending for a performance, or for bedtime rocking and singing to baby.
Epic poems resemble ballads in that they are divided into formal verses and they tell a story. The language of an epic poem is extremely formal, and the subject matter usually encompasses heroic deeds or historic events. Like the ballad, the epic poem originates in a time when few people were literate. Epic poetry was performed by traveling minstrels or jongleurs, and frequently were the means of transmitting news from one area to another. Needless to say, poetic license was frequently taken with events. After all, the performers needed to earn their supper; few were above exaggerating or embroidering the tale—or even down-right altering it to suit the audience.
The traditional pattern for an epic poem is Trochaic Tetrameter. Trochaic refers to the way the accent is placed on the syllables. Instead of dah-DUM, dad-DUM, as is the case in Iambic, Trochaic is DUM-dah, DUM-dah, evoking visions of marching feet, fiercely beating drums, makers and shakers on the move. Tetrameter refers to having 4 feet or 8 syllables to a line, giving a crisper bounce to the verse. The verses may or may not rhyme. Frequently, epics are written in blank verse; that is, verse that has a structured meter and foot, but that does not rhyme. Gilgamesh is probably the oldest known epic; Beowulf is another. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is a more modern imitation of the style used in these classics, as is Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha”.
The ode originated as a part of formal choral performances originating in Greece. It contains three parts: the strophe, the antistrophe and the epode. Originally, these referred to the movement of the chorus as it moved from east to west, west to east and finally stopped in the middle. The strophe lays out the structure and subject of the work; the antistrophe mirrors the strophe and further explains the topic; the epode finalizes the statement, pulling the whole thing together. Originally, the ode dealt with solemn events and formal statements; in more recent times, the form frequently takes on a sarcastic air, making social comments on more common matters. The rhyme and meter structure may vary, but the arrangement of subject matter does not.
The web has allowed a wonderful proliferation of opportunities for personal expression. It is my hope that when the “dumped file drawer” method of writing poetry palls, there will be those serious artists who enjoy trying out these traditional formats.