Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Writing a ballad


From ethnic histories to hymn lyrics to words in a country music song, the ballad has been a favorite for centuries and continues to provide a vehicle for contemporary story-telling and narrative poems.

To discuss this highly popular literary form, I’ll post the entry from my Kindle e-book, the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun. [Note: The capitalized words in the text below let you know you’ll find A to Z entries on those subjects too.]


ballad [Rhymes with salad.] Some of our oldest English poems were written in this FORM. Often ballads told the history of a person, place, or event. To help people remember, the poem might include RHYME. Sometimes one or more lines were repeated in a REFRAIN. The ballad also had a strong BEAT. Some became lyrics to a song or HYMN. As people sang a ballad, another poet might add a verse. Then the next poet might change words in a REVISION. Usually, early ballads had unknown or ANONYMOUS writers. Later poets began new ballads but kept the same form. As you read aloud the following, listen for the beat on each line. Keep count of each strong beat by clapping your hands or tapping your foot.

Where The Pelican Builds
by Mary Hannay Foott (1846-1918)

The horses were ready, the rails were down,
But the riders lingered still—
One had a parting word to say,
And one had his pipe to fill.

Then they mounted, one with a granted prayer,
And one with a grief unguessed.
“We are going,” they said as they rode away,
“Where the pelican builds her nest!”

They had told us of pastures wide and green,
To be sought past the sunset’s glow;
Of rifts in the ranges by opal lit;
And gold beneath the river’s flow.

And thirst and hunger were banished words
When they spoke of that unknown West;
No drought they dreaded, no flood they feared,
Where the pelican builds her nest!

The creek at the ford was but fetlock deep
When we watched them crossing there;
The rains have replenished it thrice since then,
And thrice has the rock lain bare.

But the waters of Hope have flowed and fled,
And never from blue hill’s breast
Come back—by the sun and the sands devoured—
Where the pelican builds her nest.


Like most ballads, this one repeats a LINE, "Where the pelican builds her nest." That refrain adds to the poem's RHYTHM. The ballad also follows the typical pattern of 4/ 3/ 4/ 3. That means each verse has four beats in the first and third lines. Then three beats go on lines two and four. Here's another way to show a common ballad pattern:

Line 1 = 4 beats
Line 2 = 3 beats
Line 3 = 4 beats
Line 4 = 3 beats

Some ballads have four beats in every line. That's TETRAMETER. Three beats make a line of TRIMETER. What difference does it make? Maybe none! However, the more you know about poetic terms or TECHNIQUE, the more choices you have when you REVISE.

To write a ballad, start with research. Ask a parent, teacher, librarian, or elderly neighbor about interesting people or events in your town. Or ask someone to tell you a lively story about your ancestors. Write that story in a poem with rhymes and a strong beat.

To hear and feel the typical beat of a ballad, read the above poem again. Then write to that rhythm. Read your FIRST DRAFT aloud. Check the beat by clapping your hands four times for each four-beat line and three times for a three-beat line. If a line loses its beat, change your WORD CHOICES or rearrange words as you revise.

©2013, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Please do not use without permission, but please do order the Poetry Dictionary For Children and For Fun from the Kindle store on Amazon. Teachers in your local schools might want to know about the book too. Thanks!

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