Basic Poetics – (Ballads continued – Two Sisters)

Allen Ginsberg lecturing on the early English Ballad tradition continues

AG: Basically a ballad is a narrative. It tells a story. It tells it fast . it might have a stop-frame or freeze-frame in it (where there’s a lament and a repeat of various lines). Jump-cuts, very fast collage, like highlights, starting with the beginning and swiftly moving into the action, then jumping, with great ellipses (like a haiku), so tremendous time and space or tragedy or action, so, jump to the end of the action, or climax of the action and then show the result – somebody..the knight goes out, the next stanza he’s dead with the crows plucking at his eyes; the next stanza, his lady is mourning for him on the castle wall, as fast as that. So, in a way, it’s surreal, (we’re not talking about any specific poem yet), in a way it’s Surrealist (from a twentieth-century point-of-view), because it moves so fast, as fast as the mind moves when the mind recollects. So, in some ways, it could be considered a very modern form, as it has been used in modern times by (Bob) Dylan, or by any of the ballad-makers (but Dylan particularly excellent in fast jump-cuts.) – “Jump-cut”? Familiar phrase? from cinema? – that you’re looking at one thing and, all of a sudden, there’s a fast jump to..

The jump cut is the.. In the melodrama, when the choo-choo train is coming down on the tracks, and the lady is bound down on the tracks, and you see the train coming and, all of a sudden you see the lady, and then you see the guy riding on his horse to get her, and then you see the train coming closer, and then you see the guy approaching the bridge, and then you see the lady on the track, and you see the guy jumping off his horse and running to the bridge, and then you see the train coming from the other side of the bridge, and the guy’s running to the middle, and then you see the lady, and then the next thing, they’re both.. they both have jumped off the bridge and are slowly diving into the water, and the train is going off – So it’s a series of jump-cuts. So ballad has some of that fast action to it.

[Helen Adam (1909-1993)]

also… Ballads, apparently, have an interesting magical quality (that one of the poet-teachers here [at Naropa], Helen Adam specifically dug). And there are some lectures on ballad in the library that Helen gave here and are worth listening to, with her Scotch (sic) voice reading them [Editorial note – these have now been transcribed and are available as part of our Allen Ginsberg Project archive – see November & December of 2012]

[There follows a brief discussion about the location of the tapes in the Naropa library – Editorial note – these tapes have now been digitized and made readily available – see here – “So they’ll be in the library and they’re worth hearing. If you want to check out ballads, if you get into ballads, there’s that archive we have at the library (so ask George (sic) for it or….” “Ok, maybe we’ll try and listen to that, (the Helen Adam tape) maybe Thursday I’ll bring it in]

The thing that, the sort of thing that Helen liked (which turns me onto it also). in
“The Two Sisters”, (on page eighty-one), was at the end (And I’m assuming that we’ve read a little of this, anyway, so I can skip to the highlights – (It) was the blonde sister, the youngest sister, as I remember, was pushed into the water by her eldest – “The youngest stood upon a stane/The eldest came and threw her in” (stanza nine), and she cries to her sister, “O sister, sister, save my life/I swear I will never be no man’s wife” – and “Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,/ she came down here on bonny mill-dam” –
“O out it came the miller’s son/ And saw the fair maid swimming in”. Then, she’s washed up, she’s dead.
“And by there came a harper fine/ That harped to the king at dine/When he did look that lady upon./He sigh’d and made a heavy moan/ He’s ta’en three locks o’ yellow hair/(And) with them strung his harp so fair/ The first tune he did play and sing/ Was,”Farewell to my father the king”/The next tune that he did play and sing/Was, Farwell to my mother, the queen” The lasten tune that he play’d then/Was, was “Wae to my sister, fair Ellen”
– So the hair of his drowned maiden is being used as the strings of a harp to prophesy – or just to make prophecy.
So it’s, like, really outlandish, garish, fantastic, pretty, magical, gossamer.

A ballad, apparently, is a form that you can use your imagination on and get frantic within, push to the limit of dream surrealist imagination, without violating the form. In other words, it’s a form that encourages that. So if you do want to write ghostly magical poetry, ballad is a good form to use. There was one that I had in Gates of Wrath – “I rose at midnight in the dark” (it begins with the first line – “I rose at midnight in the dark”. If you want to see what I did with it, when I was twelve, or twenty, twenty-two..

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately ten minutes in, and concluding at approximately sixteen-and-three-quarter minutes in]

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