WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 6

The second half of our poetry writing course begins with this Day 6 assignment:

  • Prompt: hero or heroine
  • Form: ballad
  • Device: anaphora/epistrophe

Ballad

Ballads are dramatic, emotionally charged poems that tell a story, often about bigger-than-life characters and situations. They can be long, short, rhymed, or unrhymed — by now there are no strict rules — though it’s still common for ballads to have a refrain.

A ballad has something removed from daily life about it — though everyday topics can definitely be given the ballad treatment. The secret is to find the drama, the struggle, the heightened emotions of a given situation and use them to tell a story.

anaphora/epistrophe

anaphora: repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the beginning of multiple lines of verse

epistrophe: repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the end of multiple lines of verse

symploce: use of both an anaphora and an epistrophe in successive lines of poetry

Writing Process

The first task is to choose a hero (I’m using hero as a gender-neutral term here) to feature. I started out wanting to celebrate firefighters, but I had trouble coming up with a narrative progression to do that. One solution to that problem would have been to create a single, composite firefighter, a larger-than-life figure like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

However, as I contemplated that approach, I realized I know a lot about one of my personal heroes, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. By opening the way for women to pursue careers in medicine and other professions, she helped to change society’s views about both what women could do and should do.

So Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell it is.

The second task is to note the key narrative points in her story:

  • Decided to defy the taboo against women attending medical school
  • Expanded the Victorian notion of what was proper for women by emphasizing medicine as a natural extension of a woman’s world of home and children
  • Was careful to avoid suggestions that she wanted to overturn woman’s traditional role
  • Helped other women enter and complete medical studies
  • Established the first hospital to train women physicians after graduation
  • Contributed to societal reform by emphasizing the necessity of educating all women about nutrition and hygiene

In constructing the ballad, I’m going to start with the refrain:

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

Now to build the poem around this refrain.

I’m almost too embarrassed to post the result here. Parts of it sound terribly forced, and it needs several more stanzas to do justice to its namesake. But I’ve spent the better part of the day on it, and it’s time to me give up and hit the “publish” button.

The Ballad of Elizabeth Blackwell

Crusader Elizabeth Blackwell, the first U. S. female M. D.,
Lead the way in social reform by shifting the cultural norm
Of what a woman should and could be
In the mid-nineteenth century.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

Only men could enroll in medical school
When Elizabeth Blackwell applied.
Her future classmates thought it a joke
But when she arrived their laughter died.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

She graduated first in her class in 1849,
The first woman to earn a medical degree
In the U. S., where spinster or wife and mother
Were all women were told they could be.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

To avoid dissent she carefully towed the line
Of expanding, not changing, traditional roles.
She could be a physician and still maintain
A woman’s meek, spiritual, nurturing soul.

She emphasized education,
She emphasized aspiration,
She emphasized determination,
Her life demonstrates all three.

When other women earned medical degrees
And found no opportunities for on-the-job experience,
Elizabeth founded her own hospital
And trained them there, her efforts immense.

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