Tag Archives: ballad

Tuesday Tryouts: The Cento

9:07 a.m.–Atlanta

Hello everyone. I sense a ballad battlefield strewn with wounded, moaning poets. And those of you who don’t write, but follow me to read my posts [bless you], are thinking: Wow! Glad I didn’t have to try that. But, maybe a small percentage of you tried? I hope so. It’s worth it to add ballads to your arsenal.

Let me, for a moment, before I talk about this week’s exercise, tell you why form is so important to a writer. I wrote free verse for years before tackling forms, because the structure of most forms seems daunting. But, once I conquered my fears, I found that forms not only freed me, but give me great pleasure. To have to work within constraints to craft a poem makes me stretch my writing muscles.

I also became aware that to write good free verse, I needed to learn about structure. Free verse is not writing anything down without a form. Free verse has structure, uses poetic devices, requires pacing. The freedom comes in the structure not being a set structure but one a writer devises. In many ways, writing good free verse is more difficult than following a set of rules.

That’s my 101 for today. Now to the exercise. I will give you a break from form and give you one of my favourite things to play with in creating poetry: the cento. Those of you who follow We Write Poems know that they set that as their prompt this week [totally independently–I do love serendipity], as well. I will tell you what you need to do and tomorrow you will have an extra post from me with two examples, as I will be posting responses to We Write Poems.

Choose a poet you enjoy and find an online resource that carries several of his/her poems [I Googled: Robert Frost’s poems]. Go through and copy one or two lines you like from at least five poems. You probably want to aim for having fifteen to twenty lines. You can keep an undefined theme running through your choices, or go nuts and pick lines without worrying whether they will be easy to make work. Be sure and note for each line you copy, the name of the poem.

To make my life easier, I write the lines so I can cut them into strips and sit at a table, or on the floor, to shift the order of the lines around until they make sense. In a proper cento, nothing should be changed except the punctuation. I had to, with my choices, shift the point of view, so the speaker was all first person, or third person.

But, I also enjoy tweaking the cento and incorporating lines. You may remember a poem I posted a few weeks ago using first lines from e. e. cummings. Much of the poem had my words as well. You might try a pure cento first and then if you have one you are itching to tweak, go ahead. After the poem is done, remember to write the author and titles of the poems from which you took the lines.

Don’t forget that I enjoy seeing the fruits of your labours and do post your efforts in my comments, or link to your own blog. You can always remove the poem later.

If you know anyone who would enjoy this, click on the buttons below. And, I shall see you Thursday for seven random facts about me, plus some of the blogs I will nominate for the Versatile Blogger award. Friday will be the week’s roundup of prompts and next Tuesday we will look at cascade poems. Don’t they sound lovely? Happy writing.


Posted by on 10/05/2011 in exercises, poetry, writing


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Tuesday Tryouts: Ballads [Where the Money Is]

8:39 am — Atlanta

Hello everyone. I hope all is well after the weekend. My title is a little tongue-in-cheek but, when I told one of my colleagues, last year, that I was retiring to write poetry, he replied with great seriousness: “Write lyrics. That’s where the money is”. And, if you have a musical ear, the ballad is as close as you can get to lyrics.

Many of our favourite songs are ballads, especially in the folk and country genres. England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and the United States, all have long histories of ballad writing both as poetry (Robert Burns and Walter de la Mare) and song (Gordon Lightfoot, Springsteen, The Beatles, today’s power rock ballads). If you watch American Idol, or any of the other competitions, you know many ballads are sung.

Ballads have a specified form, but from what I have seen with all the ballads I have read, it is a rare poet who follows the form strictly, so it is forgiving in nature. After all Rule Number One is break the rules.

Ballads started as narrative songs with a recurrent refrain. In literature they became narrative poems, often sentimental, tragic, comic, or historical, written in short stanzas, and full of sensory imagery. Think The Ballad of Casey Jones, or John and Yoko, or Davy Crockett.

The word comes from the Old French balade, a song accompanying a dance, from Late Latin ballāre, to dance.

A ballad is a composition written in metrical feet forming rhythmical lines. They are written in ballad stanzas or quatrains (four-line stanzas) of alternating lines of iambic (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables), known as ballad meter. Usually, only the second and fourth line of a quatrain are rhymed (in the scheme a, b, c, b).

That looks and sounds scarier than it is. The brackets make it seem complicated. What you want is a topic. Choose a folk hero, or sentimental topic, say the loss of something. You can look to history for subject matter. Then write a four line stanza. Lines 1 and three have eight syllables and lines 2 and 4 have six. The iambic means every second syllable is stressed, as in the word “announce,” or the line “I eat my peas and honey with a knife”. If you go through, you will note every second syllable is stressed. Iambic is our natural speech pattern, in English.

The good news is that you can have different line lengths, different rhyme schemes, no rhyme scheme, a different stress pattern, so long as there is a discernible rhythm to the stanzas when read.

Here is an excerpt from “Barbara Allen,” a traditional ballad:

In Scarlet Town, where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’
Made every youth cry well-a-day
Her name was Barbara Allen.

All in the merry month of May
When green buds they were swellin’,
Young Jeremy Grove on his deathbed lay
For love of Barbara Allen.

And, an excerpt from one of the most famous of the literary ballads “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” by Oscar Wilde:

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

Note that Wilde decided he wanted six lines rather than quatrains, but if you read it you will feel its rhythm. Once you have the rhythm in your bones, and I suggest looking up ballad texts if the idea of writing one intrigues you, you will find it surprisingly easy to reproduce. Try at least for a quatrain or two on more than one topic, because, if you decide ballads are not for you, the quatrains can serve as a resource for when we tackle pantoums. But you might surprise yourself: ballads can be addictive because of their rhythmic quality.

Have fun with this and post your results on your blog, or here in the comments, even if it’s a lone quatrain, but you know you nailed the rhythm.

Thursday, I promised you a break from no no words, so will be sharing with you some sites worth taking a look at; Friday will be our usual roundup, back to its normal listing, now that April is done; and next Tuesday, perhaps another form, perhaps a small break and a general exercise. We shall see, dear readers.

Meanwhile, share this with anyone you feel would enjoy it, by clicking on the buttons below. Happy writing, everyone.


Posted by on 03/05/2011 in exercises, poetry, writing


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Tuesday Tryouts: Black Belt Acrostics

8:40 am — Atlanta

Okay, so maybe they aren’t that difficult, but they are more challenging than the acrostics I started you with last week. So, how did you do? I ask because I have no idea how many of the 50 or so of you who visit, try the exercises. I know a couple do, as they have occasionally let me see a poem. Does this bother me? Only in the sense that I am curious. I love having all of you come by, but if you do write I am curious. I wondered if some of you don’t have a blog where it is suitable to post a draft of a poem, in which case let me invite you to post your tries in the comments for each Tuesday. Hmmmm. Clearly I need my second cup of coffee. Hang on…

Okay–nestle back in chair, smell hot coffee, watch steam rise, relax, breathe–how is everyone? It’s good to be with you. I enjoy my blog days and writing to you. This week’s acrostics are both more fun and more challenging.


Find a line from a poem, a song, an article, anywhere. For your first, you probably want it roughly ten words. Write the line vertically and use each word as the beginning of a line. Below is an example of one I wrote.

No more talk of darkness, forget these wide-eyed fears.(“All I Ask of You” Phantom of the Opera)

No looking into tunnels,
more following the light–
talk only of what’s possible
of the sun’s warm touch, of
darkness‘ healing sleep.

Forget the shadows hiding
these thoughts of endless night.
Wide open doors await,
eyed by hope and held by
fears of all that is unknown.

You will be surprised how well having the first word of each line in place makes things easier, and in no time, you have a poem. And, if you like it, start the revision process. The first words no longer need to stay in that position, or can be changed completely.


And, if you are still looking for a challenge, we have the double letter acrostic. “Acrostics can be more complex than just by making words from initials. A double acrostic, for example, may have words at the beginning and end of its lines, as this example, on the name of Stroud, by Paul Hansford .” “Acrostics” Wikipedia

Set among hills in the midst of five valleys,
This peaceful little market town we inhabit
Refuses (vociferously!) to be a conformer.
Once home of the cloth it gave its name to,
Uphill and down again its streets lead you.
Despite its faults it leaves us all charmed.

Now that is complex. The Wikipedia entry on acrostics is excellent and there are several examples of what writers have done with varying the form. The calendar acrostic is particularly worth checking out.

I will see you on Thursday for a discussion of the list of no no words I posted last week, and Friday for our roundup of prompts and exercises from the poetry world. Next Tuesday we will look at either a ballad or a blazon. If you know anyone who would be interested in any of this, feel free to share through one of the buttons below.

You are welcome to post a poem and link to your blog, or post a poem in comments, or, despite my pre-coffee mini-rant at the beginning, to do neither, but continue to visit, for you will always be welcome. Happy writing.


Posted by on 12/04/2011 in exercises, poetry, writing


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