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Writing 201: Hero(ine)

Grab your verse by both ends (or hands; your call), like a hero with extra big hair. Week 2 here we go!

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Your prompt: hero(ine)

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Whether it’s a hero or a heroine, your poem today should focus on a person with an outsized personality — someone who makes a splash (or a mess) whenever he or she crosses others’ path. A parent, a teacher, a writer, Batman: we all know someone heroic, whether in real life or in fiction. Of course, if you’re feeling less laudatory today, feel free to turn things around by writing about an antihero or a villain.

Today’s form: ballad

Ballads at a glance:

  • 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.

When you think of a ballad, what comes to your mind? Since the 80s happened to coincide with my formative years, instinctively think of a big-hair (male or female) singer on a stage, shrouded in smoke, belting out a sappy tune about a sappy love story accompanied by just-as-sappy strings (yes, I know, too much alliteration). Or I just think about Meat Loaf.

Incredibly enough, the 80s were right: from the start, ballads were all about telling dramatic, big stories (though the smoke machine was, indeed, a later addition). Robin Hood started out as a ballad in the 15th century. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? You guessed it — a ballad. Here’s a taste of Oscar Wilde:

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
  And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
  No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
  The hangman’s hands were near.

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.

If you’d like a few more concrete ideas on how to go about ballad-writing, here’s a handy tutorial. As always, you can take or leave any and all pieces of advice when it comes to poetry.

While many traditional ballads (and lots of modern power ballads) are written in rhyme, you by no means have to write yours that way. And while many ballads are longer pieces of verse, taking their time to develop their narrative arcs and their moods, yours can be as long or short as you see fit — it’s about channeling a story and its emotional weight, not crossing off items from a checklist.

Today’s device: anaphora/epistrophe

We’ve tackled the repetition of sounds before, but not that of words. Today, let’s explore the potential of creative redundancy with two neighboring devices: anaphora (a-NAH-fra) and epistrophe (eh-PIS-tro-fee). You may have figured out by now that the fancier the Greek name, the simpler the device. And you’ll be right this time, too.

Anaphora simply means the repetition of the same word (or cluster of words) at the beginning of multiple lines of verse in the same poem. Epistrophe is its counterpart: the repeated words appear at the end of lines. Like most simple devices, though, the trick is in deploying them to their full effect. Repetition lends emphasis to words, adds weight, and leaves a deeper imprint in your readers’ memories. Think wisely about what it is you’re underlining.

There are so many great examples of both devices. From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I have a dream speech to Nirvana’s All apologies (“what else should I…”), anaphora is everywhere. Can’t think of a famous epistrophe? I beg to differ:

Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you should’ve put a ring on it

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, give symploce a try: it’s when successive lines of poetry contain both an anaphora and an epistrophe.

So: add some punch to your poem with verses that begin or end on a strong, emphatic note. Use the device sparingly, or throw it into each one of your lines. Let us know, by the time we’re done, why that word (or words) play such an important role in the poem.

Photo by Eneas de Troya (CC BY 2.0)

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