I had a character in my head that deserved a story. She was a viking shield maiden, so I decided to write a ‘medieval’ ballad. As a lover of Beowulf and Tennyson, I had an idea of the tone and set to it. I hadn’t written any poetry since I was in school, so it was a bit of a challenge, but it was all part of my new focus on diversifying to beat procrastination.
The whole process was really fun, but I also learnt some stuff.
What is a ballad poem?
A ballad is a poem that tells a story and may have been accompanied by music, in earlier periods of its popularity. It usually comprises four-line stanzas (verses), each line is four beats, with alternating lines rhyming. My poem followed four beat lines, with an ABACD pattern, meaning only lines one and three rhymed. The fifth line acted as a chorus throughout the poem. Famous examples of ballads are The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot, which I used as the model for mine.
Having a structure helps
The strict structure of the ballad may seem like a hindrance, but actually, it can be liberating, after writing prose. Writing a novel is overwhelming and tiring and can be joyless. You have to cross an empty ocean and fill it with words, often with no sign of the horizon. With a ballad, you have four beats, four lines (or five, in my case) and a couple of rhymes. The restrictions helped me focus. If I chose a word, I had to find a rhyme, or it had to fit the rhythm. Sometimes I’d find a word I liked and focused on crafting a verse around it. Other times, I had an image or event that needed to happen and honed the words.
Having an outline helps even more
I began my ballad by writing the story of my shield maiden, Sigrun. She was born, then the Christians came to her land, she took up her sword and fought to retain the old faith of her people. This was not groundbreaking stuff, just your average tale of heroism and adventure. However, as someone who doesn’t outline my novels, I discovered the value of having a roadmap. I just got the story down, which gave me my verses and then I got to work on turning it into a poem.
Poetry is puzzling
With my outline there, I began with ‘Of Torvin Ek was Sigrun born, A sister of two brothers’. And I knew each stanza would end with a seven-beat line, finishing with ‘…the fair Sigrun’. On the first pass I got the imagery and the story down. On the second pass, I focused on the rhymes, which often meant scouring online thesauri for the perfect fit ( I also learnt there are very few non-specific words for sword). And finally, I had to count every beat of every line. If the rhythm was out, it wouldn’t work, so I spent a long time rewriting lines, which then needed new rhymes, which meant whole verses had to be rewritten. It sounds like a nightmare, but it was actually, quite satisfying – like a puzzle that needed solving.
Writing is fun
I write because I have stories and characters in my head, that need to get out. I don’t find it a particularly fun process. It’s bloody hard work and I’ll avoid it for as long as I can and read or play videogames or do the dishes instead. But writing this poem was really fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I enjoyed being able to luxuriate in words and pick the perfect one. With prose, it’s all about, just getting it down and ploughing on, until you reach the editing stage, only then can you dwell on a line. Even then, if a line becomes too perfect, it’s probably a darling and you need to kill it. My experience with this poem allowed me to attempt to create one darling after another and string them all together.
I’m sure the poets out there will be screaming ‘FUN!? Poetry? Fun you say!?’, as they sit next to pages of crossed out lines and scrumpled, useless, embarrassing verse. What was fun, for me, was taking a busman’s holiday. I was writing, but it was a different kind of writing, which allowed me to look back at my project in a different way. If you write prose, not poetry or vice versa, I urge you to switch. Try something different and see what happens. You never know, it might be fun.