Yesterday I announced I was reading Louis Zukofsky’s “A”. The poem is decidedly written in the mode of free verse – most parts of it anyway. But imagine my surprise when, at the end of Part 8, I’m reading along and happen upon a Ballade. Right in the middle of the poem.
Zukofsky was a Modernist. So it shouldn’t surprise me that he did this. All the Modernist’s wrote this way to some extent. One of my favorites, T.S. Eliot, was very adept at it.
Nevertheless, Zukofsky springs a Ballade on us, which is a specific type of form. It isn’t merely rhymed and metered in a nominal sense. It follows a very specific format. There are variations. The one Zukofsky chooses is the Ballade Supreme, consisting of three stanzas of 10 lines each where the final line of each stanza repeats itself. Then there is a five or six line envoy at the end that also repeats the repeating line.
The Ballade Supreme is often a tributary form and here Zukofsky uses it to pay a tribute to J.S. Bach. So I’m reading and come across this:
A pretty May note, Singing Bach as they dug, Isenacum en musica, hear us Digging - we are singing of gardens - March Day of equal night, Bach's chorus primus To chorus secundus to the groined arch - To vanish as the cone fruit of the larch: Voice a voice blown, returning as May, dew On night grass: and he said I worked hard, hue Of word on the melody, (each note worth Thought the clatter of a water-mill drew): Labor, light lights in air, on earth, in earth. ... Coda, see to it the burden renew, Sound out thick gardens dug up in purlieu The shrapnel haunts; May is red blossom, berth Of what times' mill; blood reads the wounds, the cue - Luteclavicembalo - bullets pursue: Labor light lights in earth, in air, on earth.
And Part 8 ends.
Zukofky’s “A” is the perfect example of what I was talking about here.
“A” is a poem that can be classified as an avant-garde free verse poem and Zukofsky maintains that mode through most of the poem, but this well placed ballade at the end of Part 8 perfectly illustrates the freedom that poets are allowed to take in crafting their poems.
I’m not suggesting we should move backward to the Modernist poetics, and certainly not to Objectivism, but we should be mindful of the influences of poets like Zukofsky and his Modernist counterparts. We can take what they’ve done and improve upon it. There are poets today who are doing this and I applaud them.
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