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Poetry Book Review:

American Ballads
New And Selected Poems

by Thomas Thornburg

american ballads thomas thornburgIf Wordsworth were writing in the 21st century would he use phrases like “fucks and sucks” or words like “dick”, “cock” and “goddam”? Would Shelley? Would Chaucer?

Of course, Chaucer used the 'C' word at a time when it hadn't the same negative connotation – though the same specific definition – as it does today. Still, what if the great formal verse writers had been more colloquial, more street? Would Donne have gone there?

Thomas Thornburg does and I love him for it. Finally, I've found a formal verse writer who doesn't dress up every verse in Sunday clothes. Thornburg, in American Ballads New And Selected Poems, draws a nice balance between the formal elements of rhyme and meter and the contemporary elements of interesting word twists and typographical experimentation.

American Ballads is full of traditional forms like clerihews and sestinas. His rhyme and meter often fall along the same linear path as the Romantics, specifically Wordsworth and Coleridge. But I can see the influence of such figures as Robert Service and Dr Seuss as well.

Some of the poems in American Ballads are actually childrens poems. Consider that a warning – it's not an appropriate gift for your five year old.

Thornburg is one of the few living poets today who can write both for children and adults. His childrens poems - “Elmer The Great” and “The Scissorsman” - are great reads and great fun. His long ballads, too, are fun to read and a welcome break from weighty academic verse. But I don't mean to paint him as a perfect poet. He's far from that.

While Thornburg's strengths seem to be his uncanny word play and his attentive ear to a metrical line unit, he does have his weaknesses, garrulity being one of them. There are times when I found myself saying 'less could have been more'. His wit and sense of humor should make him a favorite among readers who like a lighthearted read, but I am not always sure that some of his lines are intended to be humorous. Thornburg switches from the tragic to the humorous quickly and some of the lines could be construed either way.

Another signature element of Thornburg's verse is his regionalism. A native of Indiana, his subject matter often portrays that fact and his use of language, particularly dialectical linquistic word play, often give that away as well. You can take that as a positive or negative. To me, it's a negative only if you can't comprehend the loaded meanings of the way words are used in the Midwest region.

I would not call Thomas Thornburg a great poet, but he is not bad. American Ballads New And Selected Poems has its weaknesses, but it is mostly a fun read. Here's an example of an acrostic poem, which illustrates several of Thornburg's strengths as a poet:
    Mary Jane, you brown-eyed baby, the way they put you down And tell such little lies on you around this stinking town; Rarely once and maybe never Mary Jane won't tell; If she'll let you , she can get you feeling very well; Just because you haven't met her, you can mend your luck: Unless you're blind, man, go and find her; all it takes is pluck. And those folks older should not scold her just because she's free, Not unless they can't confess they're paying cash for their B&B. And if you read her will you heed her? Just as likely not: Slug your beer and say it's clear the whole damned world has gone to pot.
I found that American Ballads New and Selected Poems got off to a slow start, but once I got into it I enjoyed it. I think you will too.

Order your copy of

American Ballads New And Selected Poems
by Thomas Thornburg


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