Gray day, mists and drizzle, the sky and lake both slate—and now a downpour lashing the lilies—

Ballad weather report:—

The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.
—The Unquiet Grave, Child Ballad #78A

‘Mak hast, Mak hast, my mirry men all,
Our guid schip sails the morne:’
‘O say na sae, my master deir,
for I feir a deadlie storme.

‘Late late yestreen I saw the new moone,
Wi the auld moone in hir arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will cum to harme.’
—Sir Patrick Spens, Child Ballad #58A

Don’t go sailing, you sailors in Sir Patrick Spens, no matter what the king says! Weather is almost always ominous in English and Scottish balladry.

Medieval weather report: query:

Western wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

Wallace Stevens weather report:

Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air:
—“Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”

May: big ballad month for eros/thanatos sweepstakes:

‘Twas in the merry month of May
With all the sweet buds swellin’
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
All for love of Barbara Allen
—Barbara Allen, Child Ballad #84

The great tragic incest ballad, “The Bonny Hind” (Child #50), also a May ballad:

O may she comes, and may she goes,
Down by yon gardens green,
And there she spied a gallant squire
As squire had ever been.

And may she comes, and may she goes,
Down by yon hollin tree,
And there she spied a brisk young squire,
And a brisk young squire was he.

“Give me your green manteel, fair maid,
Give me your maidenhead;
Gif ye winna gie me your green manteel,
Gi me your maidenhead.”

Just say no, you sweet fair maid! That gallant squire’s your brother returned from sea! Screw him you’re dead!
And so it goes.
In just spring that little goat man goes wheee, indeed—but to a bad end, most usually, in balladry.
The impassivity of traditionary ballads, their narrative and ethical strength: O May she comes and May she goes, and this is how it is and this is how it goes.

Traditionary balladry and oral poetries more broadly inverting almost every “aesthetic” criterion of literary poetry.

Consider this jacket copy, on William Stafford’s Traveling through the Dark (1962), found in today’s bookshelf foraging:

“A highly individual, very personal voice is heard through these poems . . .”

No highly individual very personal voices in balladry! (Or for that matter in Homer.)

So something else accounts for these poems’ power.
“Originality” and poetic “individuality” a fetish congealed in the mid-18th C., refitted with each successive stage of capitalism: Monty Python: We’re all individuals!

Marx, ever astute: the individual is the social being.
Adorno, after him, on “Lyric Poetry and Society,” how lyric, the most ostensibly privatized of genres, everywhere bears marks of man’s (and woman’s) social and historical condition, even (precisely) as lyric seems to withdraw from the social world, from Baudelaire onward, through Stefan George . . .

And it is true that from a certain distance the ostensibly individual voices of an era blend more or less into a range of period styles, a date-able idiom: which does not of course detract from strong works, or the immense pleasures to be found in various styles— that they bear the marks of their historicity.

(Wondering this week: are we in a Silver or a Bronze Age of U.S. Poetry? These seem to me the options, if you are toying with a “four ages” model.
This is a very guy thing, no? Like arguing about baseball players or jazz greats.)

Still this striving for, and hailing of, “new” voices, and “strikingly individual styles,” can be usefully submitted to the askesis of anonymous balladry—

For from the point of view of the poem the poet doesn’t matter.

It isn’t always identity that sings.

Wonderful line from a book of poems by a young woman, loaned to me by Françoise Meltzer years ago in Chicago—who was that poet, and what was that poem? Françoise?

Katie Peterson beaming in her Voice from the Desert in the Comments section—with striking thoughts not least on anonymity—

It had to be me, or I,

I am I because my little dog knows me.—Gertrude Stein.

Because my little blog knows me.
Because my eggnog shows me
I gotta be me.

Consider Susan Stewart, in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, on the “Cultural work of lyric: the work of individuation under intersubjective terms.”

Saussure Haiku

linguistic circuit—
ear to mouth to ear to mouth—
“I” & “you”: work it—

Keats ever helpful, with the notion of “negative capability,” and his meditations on Shakespeare’s “life of allegory,” a phrase Marjorie Levinson uses for the title of her marvelous and peculiar book on Keats—

Keats the striving beautiful pugnacious capacious soul remarking the deformations of ego in works of poets with “oversocialized egos,” as Levinson puts it, referring to Wordsworth and Byron—to which roster we should add Robert Lowell. And certain other living poets. Poets supremely assured of their social being. And in various ways entrapped by said assurance.

Who can afford not to have an identity?
A question for poets, and for politics obviously, much hashed out and perhaps exhausted: viz. identity politics.

Heteronymity: more than a useful gambit, esp. with Pessoa, who via his heteronyms explored radically different poetics and metrics as well as personae. So much for coterie consistency, or a ‘recognizable voice’!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To boom—to stream—the livelong day
In a little pond, a blog—

Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Waiting Room”:

you are an I
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?

Why indeed?
Those days one feels more creaturely commonality with cows in the field than with one’s “fellow human beings.” That very revulsion itself a mark of human being.
Susan Stewart again: “The self . . . is compelled to make forms—including the forms of persons striving to represent their corporeal imaginations to others.”
Jorie Graham, taking up Bishop’s great poem and the strange experience of being called into being in all registers, via one’s name:

What else could be inside me? That’s when I heard
what makes me break this silence and speak to you this way.
I heard my name, as always, called out into the classroom as the schoolday began . . .
There was nothing I could do . . .
This is what is wrong: we, only we, the humans, can retreat from ourselves and
not be
altogether here.
—Jorie Graham, “Other”

And Fanny Howe, marking the limits and conditions of enunciation—she like Graham speaking the silence they also break:

I have backed up
into my silence

as inexhaustible as the sun

Judith Butler’s great lecture a couple of years ago on “the face of the other,” meditating in part on the double injunction of Yahweh: Do Not Kill/You Must Kill. This bind organized in part around the prohibition on images, the related prohibition against looking upon the face of God—

How we give face to others, the Other: her cases—the post-9.11 obituaries in the New York Times, the image of Afghan women in US media around the same time, the mass-reproduced face of Osama Bin Laden: the image of others mourned; of others presented as subjects for identification, redemption; as “the face of terror.”

Is the name a face?
Paul De Man suggests so: “Autobiography as Defacement.”
The absurd overdetermination of Wordsworth’s name. Words Worth.
George Bush: Am/Bush, Anheuser Busch, Bushed, Bushwacked, Burning Bush.

My superstition about writing under another name, other names—not sure I could manage the inner psychic roilings such a venture would entail: a regrettable inhibition perhaps.

But no name: that’s another thing maybe—

Strange offshoots in the history of persona poems: the Indian death-songs haunting romanticism (cf. the “Cherokee Death-Song” featured in several 18th C. antiquarian collections, a poem later revealed to have been written by one Anne Home Hunter, included in her Poems, of 1802; several of her poems were set by Handel. The “Cherokee Death-Song” also appeared in Royall Tyler’s play “The Contrast,” the first professional play produced in the new USA: strange migrations crucial to romantic poiesis and cultural phantasy; cf as well Wordsworth’s “Compliant of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” his faux-Cherokee in “Ruth,” Felicia Heman’s “Indian Woman’s Death Song”—all arising out of a general fascination with the primitive, cross-cultural sensibility, an interest in vernacular and ethno-poetics, primitives variously imagined as (or drawn from populations of) Native Americans, Greeks ancient and modern, Highland chiefs, Scottish border-raiders, etc. See Tim Fulford’s book on Romantic Indians.)

Essex NY, where I now sit, a town near Split Rock Mountain, the old boundary line between the Mohawk and Algonquin peoples, and later the British and French: overlayings and displacements of peoples, your old boundary line my new one, your old trail my new path, new road.

Your people, my people, your bombs, my bombs:
Fanny Howe on the transitivity and ambiguities of violence:

There is a city of terror where
they kill civilians outside

restaurants— guys
who are fathers and things.

Food is a symbol of class there
and cars are symbols of shoes.

People are symptoms of dreams.
Bombs are symptoms of rage.

Symbols— symptoms— no difference

in the leap to belligerence.

Fanny Howe, “O’Clock”

Here we have the exchange logic of belligerence, the equations of war: a symbolic logic, wholly operational. Marx reminds us that capitalist commodification aspires to turn the working person into a thing, a quantifiable unit whose labor power is one exchangeable commodity among the cd’s, cars, food, sex, oil, and bombs humans are everywhere busily exchanging. In this poem it is as if Wordsworth had consorted with Marx and Dickinson to produce the fierce elegance of a lyric diagnosis. We see the violent thing-i-ness of humans, a thing-i-ness Howe, like Wordsworth, alerts us to:

There is a city of terror where
they kill civilians outside

who are fathers and things.

Note the ambiguity of reference here: not a terrorized city but a “city of terror”—a city that quite possibly breeds terror as much as it suffers from it. Note the civilians—marked only in their implicit opposition to soldiers. Note the ‘guys’—are the guys the killed civilians or “they” who kill them? Regardless, the “guys” are both fathers and things, both humanized in their families and reified into the instruments or objects of death.

People are symptoms of dreams.
Bombs are symptoms of rage.

Symbols—symptoms—no difference

One comes to believe that prophecy is not a matter of telling the future but a practice of paying the strictest attention to the now. That what looks in Howe like a forecast fulfilled is in fact “the news” we get only from those poets committed to a kind of political and aesthetic attunement—the news we should get everyday from poems, as William Carlos Williams hoped.


Even in wartime, there are objects

So suffused
With experience, that their pathos

Transforms them into something
As loving and potent as wine. (in Alsace-Lorraine, n.p.)

Even in wartime one may see “an object of devotion/legitimate and romantic.”

And elsewhere:

And fervently the Senators declared they supported the troops
though few sent their own sons much less their daughters, the latter
a custom of newsprung and barbarous peoples, this mixing
of sexes in war as in peace not for the supporters
of troops the news of which was admittedly
bad, discipline poor, equipment worse, which only the generals
safely retired ventured to say lest they disturb
those who supported the troops who were there
after all to keep or let us say impose
peace among the barbarians warring once again
among themselves, the sharpest among them welcoming
the troops though they’d never in public admit it
the hangings still too frequent and fresh—

* * * * *

The light in Rome was the light
in Rome for centuries albeit
altered slightly by minor
atmospheric shifts since the late
empire, the Campus Martius paved
and piazza’d, the soldiers’ games
played in other fields; and the obelisk
that in its annual shadow falling
on the Ara Pacis told the very minute
of Augustus’ birth has long since vanished.

Originally Published: July 13th, 2006

Maureen N. McLane grew up in upstate New York and was educated at Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Chicago. She is the author of five books of poetry: Some Say (FSG, 2017), Mz N: the serial: a poem-in-episodes (FSG, 2016), This Blue (FSG, 2014—Finalist for the National Book...