“There Is One End for Everyone”: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary American Literary Ballads

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In the United States, the literary ballad has become a narrative genre trending toward the lyric. Though some poets still view the ballad as a story-song “sung” by an anonymous narrator, many contemporary poets have sought to homogenize the ballad through generic practices that would render it indistinguishable from other kinds of poems. Of course, experimentation has become something of a prerequisite for this genre of folk poetry that Susan Stewart rightly characterized as “distressed.” But at what point does it become intellectually dishonest to call a poem a “ballad” when that poem bears almost no resemblance to any balladic precursors?

Many contemporary American poets composing such poems cherry-pick from the ballad tradition only those few, superficial qualities they find expedient for the purposes of self-expression. Diane Seuss’s “Ballad Without Music” (2022) will serve as a representative example. A meditative free-verse lyric (unrhymed), this poem adopts only the recursiveness of the ballad through repetition or refrain, which Seuss uses sparingly. In this poem a reader will find no plot, no tragedy. The only fully developed character is the speaker, a quality that deviates from the ballad’s typically impersonal narrator. While “Ballad Without Music” does focus on a single episode, the significance of this episode pertains only to a realization about the self. This realization (that Seuss, writing in propria persona, affects “one of those as if personalities”) is hardly crucial, which constitutes another departure from the ballad tradition; The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics identifies a focus on “a single crucial episode” as one of three balladic constants (italics mine). Nor is the presentation of this episode particularly dramatic. Seuss dedicates very little space to fleshing out a scene, communicating events, or composing dialogue.

One could argue that this poem is primarily concerned with the question of authenticity, and that genre imitates theme; the poem claims it is a ballad while being otherwise. But Suess composes a dozen other “Ballads” on other themes concerning the self, such as “Ballad” [“Oh dream, why do you do me this way?]” (2022) or “Ballad, in Sestets” (2021). Many of these poems confront troubling fantasies and can be described as post-confessional lyrics about embarrassing or painful incidents from the poet’s past. Some are artis poeticae. Few, however, display the persuasive impersonality, dramatic immediacy, and hypnotic rhythmical structures of either oral or literary ballads.

This conspicuous lack of balladic features in Seuss’s poems leads to the inevitable question of classification: How useful, evocative, or even interesting is it to call these poems “ballads”? While Seuss appears to experiment with the ballad, she in fact conforms to a fashion for the fragmented, autobiographical lyric, in poems that are balladic in name only. I do not mean to deny that these poems are compelling works of art—only to question what, if anything, these poems gain from being labelled “ballads.” An artificial rose may not have an odor, but it probably needs petals and a stem.

It’s true that generic slipperiness has been a feature of the ballad since Thomas Percy began compiling and “correcting” ballads in his Reliques (1765), and that the flexibility of the genre is paradoxically one of its most immutable attributes. This generic interchangeability still reverberates, for example, within the etymology of “ballad,” which comes from the Middle French balade, “song for dancing.” The related French etymon “ballade,” the name Troubadours used for the dominant fixed form of Old French lyric poetry perfected by François Villon, suggests that the song-like qualities of the ballad were more pronounced as the genre began to emerge. While some early English examples included narrative and dialogue, other Middle English and early modern ballads, such as the anonymous “Western Wind,” were almost entirely lyric. The sense of the English ballad as a narrative wasn’t codified until the eighteenth century with Percy. Since then, however, nearly all popular ballads in English were, as M. H. Abrams claims in A Glossary of Literary Terms (1957), “dramatic, condensed, and impersonal.”

To some contemporary practitioners, such generic slipperiness would make any question about balladic authenticity either tediously pedantic or historically moot. But even Stewart, who criticizes the very idea of generic classification, acknowledges that “it is possible to speak of a genre without reducing the concept to a kind of abstracted history of rules.” Defining the ballad as merely “a composition in poetry or verse,” which is one definition of “Poem” found in the OED, deprives the genre of its ballad-ness. If a poet tweaks the ballad for purposes of parody or satire, as Frederick Seidel does in “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” (2016), the results can feel provocative, transgressive, even dangerous: “One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station / Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.” But Seuss, who plainly states in a recent author’s note “I have been exploring the ballad,” appears to use the term without irony or ambiguity. In such generic distortion, she is not alone.

In spite of the impulse to lyricize all genres, there are still US American poets composing ballads that would be recognizable as such to earlier practitioners. While poets like Seuss announce that their poems are ballads without actually delivering on this promise, poets who do not make such claims produce poems that align with most conventions of modern balladry. Even if they do not bear the label “Ballad,” such poems display more balladic attributes than they reject, bearing a family resemblance to mid-century examples like Robert Penn Warren’s folkloric “Ballad of Billie Potts” (1943) and Dudley Randall’s protest poem “Ballad of Birmingham” (1968).

So what are these conventions? First, contemporary ballads tell a remarkable story, either fictional or historical, usually depicting tragic or tragi-comic events. Second, though this characteristic can be tenuous, contemporary American ballads often feature a protagonist other than the poet, or they present the poet reflecting on circumstances beyond the self (or circumstances that do not start and end with the self). Third, the form of these poems is often reminiscent of the traditional ballad stanza: quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines rhyming a-b-a-b or x-a-x-a. Fourth, these poems are dramatically immediate, presenting events and ventriloquizing dialogue in such a way that the reader is placed within the action. Lastly, these poems often suggest a relationship between incident and society, establishing a causal correlation between the events that take place within a narrative and the broader social context out of which these events emerge.

Most importantly, though, “authentic” contemporary American examples turn to the ballad, as Paul Fussell argues in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1979), in order to create “the illusion of primitive sincerity and openness” associated with traditional Scottish examples like “Barbara Allen” and “Sir John Graeme,” and American adaptations like “Frankie and Johnny” and “Springfield Mountain.” This appropriated illusion of the untutored allows poets to crank up the irony so essential to understanding later literary ballads like Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” and Eliot’s “Sweeney among the Nightingales.”

The contemporary American literary ballad has also emerged as a genre highly relevant to contemporary social, political, and religious experience. Some of the finest twenty-first century examples include Rhina P. Espaillat’s “The Ballad of San Isidro” (2000), Daisy Fried’s “Trooper” (2000), Kevin Young’s “The Ballad of Jim Crow” sequence in For the Confederate Dead (2007), Catherine Tufariello’s “Bête Noir” (2007), Andrew Hudgins’s “American Rendering” (2010), David Hernandez’s “On Aggression” (2011), Cathy Park Hong’s sequence “Ballad of Our Jim” (2012), Erica Dawson’s “Langston Hughes’s Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years after He Dies Fighting at Harper’s Ferry” (2014), Joshua Mehigan’s “The Orange Bottle” (2014), Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s “On the End of the Iliad” (2015), Ryan Wilson’s “Beatus Ille” (2017), Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s “Midafternoon” (2017), James Najarian’s “Uncle Gustavus” (2018), Amit Majmudar’s “The Doll” (2018) and “The Weaver’s Song” (2020), and several poems by A. E. Stallings, such as “Lovejoy Street” (2006), “The Compost Heap” (2012) and “The Erstwhile Archivist” (2018).

Another characteristic that these latter-day ballads share is that they typically ignore, subvert, or play with at least one balladic “rule.” These contemporary examples are not as strict in their adherence to ballad traditions as, for example, Dana Gioia’s “The Ballad of Jesús Ortiz” (2023), which embraces all the traditional balladic characteristics listed above. Composed of iambic-trimeter quatrains rhyming x-a-x-a, this ballad recounts the life and death of the poet’s great-grandfather, a Wyoming vaquero who was shot during a dispute over a bar tab. In this respect, Gioia consciously adopts the cowboy ballad, observing, as he does in a note: “The ballad has traditionally been the form to document the stories of the poor.”

The examples I have in mind are more flexible, but do not stray so far from ballad conventions that they are unrecognizable as such. Where poems like Seuss’s “Ballad without Music” or Sharon Olds’s “Best Friend Ballad” (2022) function as anti- or pseudo-ballads, the poems I’ll be looking at are semi-ballads or ballads with a twist. In general, the more ballad standards the poet abandons, the less ballad-like the poem becomes.

A.E. Stallings’ “Empathy” (2018), for example, is balladic in all but one regard: the speaker. The poem ends with this devastating insight in reference to the ongoing European migration crisis:

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

With its metrical variations (more lines are irregular or accentual than regular accentual-syllabic), envelope rhyme-scheme (a-b-b-a), and shift from an anonymous narrator to the poet’s autobiographical self, “Empathy” represents the relative flexibility with which contemporary American poets make their ballads, a characteristic present within the genre at least since “Judas,” which dates from thirteenth-century England and is number twenty-three in Child’s Popular Ballads (1892-98).

Yet Stallings’ poem, like earlier examples, embraces more aspects of the ballad than it does not. Beyond form, “Empathy” tells a compelling story presented dramatically and confronts, rather brutally, a pressing societal issue. The difficult truth that “Empathy” expresses also relies on the “illusion of primitive sincerity and openness” that Fussell identifies. Stallings achieves this through music and rhetoric. The shift the poet makes in this final stanza to generalization, for example, might come across as too calculated and coldly moralizing if the poem’s insights weren’t so squarely aimed at the poet herself; the corrective impulse expressed in the poem is self-corrective (rather than self-expressive).

Crucially, though, this moment of introspective reappraisal allows Stallings to make a broader statement about the human condition. Her realization that “Empathy isn’t generous, / it’s selfish” points toward the tenuousness of any empathic gesture, how difficult if not impossible such a psychological leap may be (in spite of the current vogue for overusing this term). Also suggested here is that empathy can often be just that, a mere gesture, especially when the people with whom one attempts to empathize have experienced such extremity. Rather than resorting to the commonplace “I can’t even imagine what they’ve suffered,” Stallings at least attempts to imagine by contrasting her own life with that of imperiled migrant families (“our listing bed isn’t a raft,” “the ceiling is not seeping sky”), while also admitting that this may be all that she (and we) can do.

Though my roster of recent ballads above is not intended to be exhaustive, I hope it illustrates how many of the finest contemporary American poets have written literary ballads, even when the poet might not have set out consciously to do so. Such subliminal balladry illustrates how pervasive the genre is within American poetry. Like “Empathy,” these story-songs are written in a form, mode, and style close enough to that of past literary ballads that a connection to the genre can be readily discerned. Though variable, the meter of “Empathy,” for example, is more regular than it is not; most lines scan as trimeter with the occasional tetrameter applied for expressive effect. The line “As the dinghy starts taking on water,” for example, begins with an anapest (“as the DINGH-”) and regularizes to an iamb (“-y STARTS”) before employing a trochee (“TAK-ing”). This variation imitates the severity and danger of the action described; like the inadequate rafts many refugees are forced to board, the vessel of the meter founders. Furthermore, the ostensible roughness of the meter (which, in actuality, is carefully calibrated) adds to that ironized “illusion of primitive sincerity,” compounding as it complicates the effect.

This ostensible roughness represents a general trend among those writing semi-ballads away from the regularizations of eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century practice toward a return to the perceived, if borrowed, “authenticity” of the oral tradition. Where earlier composers of literary ballads sought the smoother numbers of regularized meter, contemporary poets roughen their surfaces. Of the twenty-first century ballads listed above, for example, only those written by Wilson, Majmudar, and one other by Stallings could be classified as formally regular. But in most cases the approximation of the form at least alludes, sonically, to that of the ballad stanza.

Many of Maurice Manning’s best poems illustrate this point. Since Bucolics (2007), Manning has written consistently narrative-lyric poems in blank iambic-tetrameter lines, including several poems that could be considered contemporary ballads. The Common Man (2010) assembles tales and anecdotes, meditations and jokes, all told by a wise-cracking, idiomatic speaker from Appalachian Kentucky. One poem, “Three Truths, One Story,” begins: “Well heck-o, Hoss, I can’t make up / a name like Turnipseed!”—and goes on to narrate the story of multiple characters living in the “out-there places” of agrarian mountain settlements: individuals and families subsisting off the land in a way that few still do. In his subjects, Manning overtly connects the folk origins of oral poetry with contemporary folk. Yet the characters and narratives one encounters in these poems are anything but “common.” “Three Truths” concludes with this compelling observation:

There are words and there are deeds, and both

are dying out, dying away
from where they were and what they meant.

God save the man who has the heart
to think of anything more sad.

Like much of Manning’s work, this passage laments the loss of a rapidly vanishing landscape, culture, and people who, as Manning writes in the book’s dedication, “made these stories happen.” Indeed, The Common Man functions as a means of preserving the stories of this rural community in decline, doing so in an idiom and genre that the members of this community would recognize as their own. In this sense, Manning, as country skáld, transcribes the oral culture of his homeplace, treating this transcription as a political act. Manning, who owns a twenty-acre farm in central Kentucky and, along with other Kentucky writers such as Wendell Berry and Anne Shelby, periodically demonstrates against mountaintop-removal mining in the region, presents a sequence of poems embodying both “the big ideas” and base desires of what it means to be human in a region threatened by environmental disaster and corporate greed. Manning’s balladic meditations become talismans against such corruption and decline.

“The Man Who Lived with Joy and Pain: His Own Account,” a ballad thinly disguised as a dramatic monologue, begins:

Suppose you were a farrier,
a man designed to hammer shoes

on horses’ hooves, and you were good
enough that all you had to do

was listen to a horse’s walk —
the clip is right, but the clop is off,

you’d say, a hand rung round your ear,
to tell the shoe was shoddy.

These lines attest to the wisdom of self-deprecation, of surrendering one’s “iron” preconceptions to the vaster intelligence of the natural world. In fact, Manning seems to equate naturalness here with meter—the clip-clop regularity of his lines echoing the horse’s gait. Manning acknowledges that so much of writing poetry is listening, letting the sound and sense of a poem guide the poet from one line to the next, rather than conforming to the dogma of contemporary practice by lapsing into post-confessional free-verse by default. “The Man Who Lived with Joy and Pain” is a lyric-narrative about knowing when to abandon an entrenched belief in favor of what one can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel as true. “The answers are there,” Manning seems to be arguing, “if we only listen for them.”

As with dialogue-heavy border ballads such as “Lord Randall” and “Bonnie Annie,” Manning’s poem ventriloquizes not only the voice of the anonymous farrier but of a horse that the farrier imagines speaking. The poem continues:

one day, this horse comes in and, sure
as you’re sitting there, the clop of the right

front hoof bespeaks instead a clump.
I need another, Brother, says

the horse. The clop’s went outta this’un.

More than other ballad-like poems in The Common Man, “The Man Who Lived with Joy and Pain” exploits the tension between stories experienced first- and second-hand. The above passage displays three levels of mediation. First, the balladeer-like singer of this story-song hears the voice of the farrier within a scene; “as you’re sitting there” denotes poet and farrier are present in the same room at the occasion of the farrier’s telling his tale. Second, the poet mediates this speech through meter; it is highly unlikely that the farrier (or the horse) spoke these lines verbatim in iambic tetrameter. Third, the poet renders the horse’s “speech” as mediated by the farrier, which more accurately represents the internal monologue of the farrier’s diagnosis based on the horse’s behavior. All of this interpersonal and interspecies communication gets collected and shaped artifactually on the page, requiring the further mediation of the reader co-authoring the poem as we read.

Complications arising through authorial mediation also inform Shane McCrae’s “The Ballad of Cathay Williams William Cathay” (2013), which features all but the formal requirements of the ballad (though it does make use of what Abrams referred to as “incremental repetition” by implementing variations on the refrain lines “How else I’m gonna know myself / When I am called.” Like Manning’s “The Man Who Lived with Joy and Pain,” McCrae’s poem is both dialectical dramatic-monologue and folk ballad. But “Cathay Williams” is composed in the voice of a remarkable historical character famous for disguising her identity, making McCrae’s poem a kind of mask behind a mask.

Cathay Williams (1844-1893) was the first African-American woman to enlist in the US military, posing as a man named William Cathay. As a woman and a domestic slave captured by Union forces in 1861, Cathay served as an Army cook and washerwoman, accompanying the Union during the Red River Campaign and the Battle of Pea Ridge. Then, in November of 1866, Cathay enlisted as a man for a three-year engagement with the 38th US Infantry. Williams is also the only known female Buffalo Soldier.

McCrae makes racial and gender identity—or the obfuscation thereof—a primary focus of this story-song. In so doing, he achieves two further degrees of mediation than Manning’s balladic dramatic monologue. Not only does McCrae ventriloquize a dramatic character ventriloquizing another, he performs a kind of double gender-switch; McCrae, who identifies as male, impersonates a woman impersonating a man—or, as Williams puts it:

I was a woman      got

A name just turn

It inside out

And I’m a man

The theme of inside-out-ness runs through the poem vis-à-vis the protagonist’s conflicting desires and fears. On the one hand, she wants and deserves to be “Discovered” (known, remembered, preserved) as the heroic figure she actually was. On the other, such a discovery in her own time would have prevented her from becoming heroic. Williams fears being found out by a “white man,” a “doctor,” and a “white woman,” a “nurse.” But she also takes a kind of furtive pride in her deception, asserting that none of these characters would “know / I was a woman” unless, in the case of the “white man,” Williams had been “stripped . . . naked” and beaten. For McCrae, it is only through violence that Williams can be truly seen by whites; even the white nurse who examines her for her physical exam is, according to Williams, so ignorant of black bodies that she doesn’t realize Williams is female. Though the Army did not require full medical examinations in 1866, McCrae’s exam-room vignette remains powerful as a hypothetical representation of the protagonist’s anxieties:

how is she [the nurse] gonna know for sure

Black man ain’t got

a hole down there

How is she know he ain’t

A white man born wrong inside out

and twice as big and mean

And got a hole go twice as deep to hell

How is it that woman sure

of anything at all

As the white nurse refuses to see black bodies for what they are, Williams refuses to acknowledge “what [the white woman might] see” or “know for sure” had Williams actually experienced a full physical examination. In other words, McCrae’s Williams won’t even consider the possibility that she would be outed as a woman, as the historical Williams actually was by a post surgeon in 1868. But this refusal makes for further dramatic mediation. By inhabiting the mind of the white nurse through Williams’s consciousness, McCrae imagines the disturbing figure of black-woman-as-white-man “born wrong inside out.” Through this image, blackness and womanhood become perverse inversions of white masculinity.

However shocking it seems on first reading, this grotesque conflation comes across as historically accurate, given the highly patriarchal nature of gender and racial norms throughout the nineteenth century. Significantly, though, this does not suggest that female and black characteristics are lesser-than. While “wrong,” this image (as McCrae imagines Williams imagining) positions black womanhood as “twice as big” and “twice as deep” as white manhood. McCrae’s use of the ballad genre, with its roots in story-songs of protest against an established order, makes such insights that much more jarring and relevant to a contemporary American audience struggling to reconcile the tragic legacies of its past.

I’ll conclude by looking at another contemporary ballad that implicates an entire culture for its decadence, blindness, and brutality. Christian Wiman’s “Watermelon Heaven” (2020) makes such implications by manipulating the traditional form and point-of-view of the ballad through the image of inside-out-ness. Perhaps the least ballad-like of the poems I’ve considered, “Watermelon Heaven” is surprising for the ways in which it invokes balladic conventions, perhaps without intending to. First, Wiman’s poem tells a story depicting tragi-comic events. Second, it features a third-person protagonist, but one who is only slightly removed from the action. Third, the poem is dramatic in its way, though Wiman uses the poem’s drama symbolically—as a means of meditating on the larger religious, societal, and cultural implications of the scene portrayed.

“Watermelon Heaven” takes as its subject the woozy, cartoonish, and slightly terrifying carnival atmosphere of a New England clambake. The poem begins:

The female fireman Doll
plops lobsters on plates
like little Brutalist buildings
made of rage.

Meat-headed, meat-handed, meat-eating men
so drunk their eyes
look uncircumcised.
Everywhere insides

are outside.
Iced oysters like tiny dirty nebulae.
A bag of gasping clams.
A boy whets a knife

to shuck a whelk
to show a girl a body
mostly foot. Eons of evolution to arrive
at this?

This is a culture dominated by drunken appetites and bloodlust, an atmosphere familiar to traditional ballads. What saves Wiman’s poem from the fate of the grotesque characters it depicts is the poet’s maneuvering of point of view. Where Stallings employs an autobiographical speaker, and McCrae adopts an historical persona, Wiman opts for a third-person narrator—a singer on the scene, an eyewitness reporter who’s also a decent tenor. This perspective allows the poet to achieve the emotional and intellectual distance necessary for the kind of cultural critique Wiman intends. Yet the narrator is also part of the action, one of the “meat-headed” who finds himself “gasping” like a clam stuffed in a bag with its fellow sufferers. The narrator, in other words, is both inside and outside this bouillabaisse, an addled yet privileged observer who can’t help seeing a lobster plopped on his plate as both a bottom-dwelling crustacean and the Sydney Opera House.

The “sung” quality of Wiman’s story-song also reinforces the grotesquery of its setting. The first four stanzas, for example, employ the balladic rhyme scheme x-a-x-a, but do so through rough, inside-out assonant rhymes like “plates” / “rage” and “nebulae” / “knife.” The triple rhyme “eyes” / “uncircumcised” / “insides” emphasizes the orgiastic narcissism of these lines with a rapid-fire cacophony of “I, I, I.” Historically, assonant rhymes are more often found in hip-hop and spoken-word than in literary poems. Hip-hop and spoken word, in other words, are genres of contemporary poetry that rely on vocal performance more than presentation on the page. This evocatively links Wiman’s poem with the orality of traditional ballads—a quality essential to the poem’s effective criticizing of the “folk.”

Wiman’s manipulation of balladic rhyme scheme also allows him to achieve a subtle formal trick. By breaking the scheme in stanza four, the narrator accentuates the poem’s first question, which is really a statement: “Eons of evolution to arrive / at this?” Wiman’s violation of formal expectations (“body” doesn’t rhyme with “this”) suggests the frustrated, evolutionary disappointment the narrator experiences at observing “a body / mostly foot” with its metrical pun. By phallic extension, the failure of evolution to improve upon a boy showing off for a girl by whetting his unmistakably sexualized “knife.” Though the poem takes advantage of several evocative rhymes (“A man wants something else” slant-rhymes with port-a-potties like “confessionals”), the poem never returns to a regular scheme.

What it does return to, however, is an amplification of the image of the boy shucking a whelk. “Watermelon Heaven” concludes with a volta that illuminates the poem’s mysterious title:

There is one end for everyone.
Short, taut, mute,
with that particular crinkled leanness that screams
nicotine, he raises a blade

almost as big as he is
and, as if a man could vanish
into what he did
if what he did were done for nothing

but the O on some stoner’s mouth
or the little rockfall of applause
like the last soft tocks 
of an avalanche,

samurais the air to a blur
of blade and red
and green and gone
that goes on, and on, and on.

With its allusion to Wallace Stevens’s “Hymn to a Watermelon Pavilion” (which ends with the almost metrically identical line “And hail, cry hail, cry hail”), this passage expresses the two-mindedness of the poet’s perspective on this nameless dispatcher of fruit. On the one hand, the poet admires the performative flourish and downhome artistry of this spectacle that is, like a poem, “done for nothing”; Wiman even imitates the man’s gestural embellishments with the exaggeratedly suspended syntax of this lengthy sentence. On the other, these lines drip with Christian symbolism that makes this spectacle seem perverse.

This final scene is the culmination of a debauched culture that would debase the idea of heaven by turning Christ’s martyrdom into a farce. The “red / and green” watermelons (“meat-headed” fruit the Hallmark colors of Christ’s nativity) become the butt of the poem’s implied joke; with an overzealous slice, the “short, taut, mute” man sends the fruit to “Watermelon Heaven.” Like a cartoon executioner, this Grim Reaper “samurais the air.” His delivery of the Good News caricatures the mock-democratic “one end for everyone” by serving up the conclusion of this obscene meal.

In a final ironic gesture, it is the “end” that “goes on”; death has dominion. This great unveiling holds apocalyptic significance, and suggests a pun on “John” (the narrator of the Book of Revelation) embedded within Wiman’s “port-a-potties” like “confessionals” simile. Given the narrator’s ambiguous view of the poem’s hellish scene, however, this “end” also seems to represent an unironic “heaven,” simply for the fact that the mute man’s “blade” has the potential to release the narrator from having to endure anymore earthly torture or tedium. If not salvation, death at least brings reprieve. This is cold comfort indeed for a poet who wrote a celebrated memoir subtitled “Meditations of a Modern Believer” and who teaches in the Yale Divinity School. Thankfully, it is honest, establishing Wiman as among the less-deceived believers of his day.

Though literary ballads have appeared in diminishing numbers since the early twentieth century, examples continue to be composed by some of the most accomplished poets now working. Rather than imitating or falsifying the volkspoesie of Germany and England, as practiced by early ballad imitators such as Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the most effective contemporary ballads utilize the tension between folklore and literature, story and song. Such work acknowledges this tension as an indelible aspect of the genre that has been present since the first attempts to collect verbal art in the form of written artifacts.

Poets like Stallings, Manning, McCrae, and Wiman break from dominant current practice by looking to the ballads of the past as a poetic genre vital to contemporary concerns. Rather than abandoning, ignoring, or dismissing as antiquated the ballad’s haunting music, societal relevance, generalized narrators, and tragic tales, these and other twenty-first century poets have found, as Frost said of E. A. Robinson, an old way to be new.