When we think about the fantasy genre, our minds’ search engines typically conjure up epic, lengthy narratives about knights and their escapades. In reality, the land of the quotidian, we have to satisfy our hunger for imaginative escape through fantasy novels. Poetry is unrelated, right? Poetry, in many ways, is the art of the everyday—pondering and appreciating life’s little details. How can the art of the fantastic and the art of the everyday relate? I don’t claim to provide a comprehensive answer to this question here. However, fantasy and poetry (the otherworldly and the everyday) do embrace each other, and it’s up to us to figure out what we do with that.
Now that the introductory hug is out of the way (for those who are uncomfortable with hugs), allow me to debunk a misconception people often have about poetry. Some believe that poetry is only for people with their heads in the clouds (that is, nerds). But how can this be true? Pause a moment to consider the irony. If poetry is the art of the everyday, surely everyone should be capable of it. Some are more gifted in it than others, but the nature of poetry thrives in the heart of each one of us—simply because we are living creatures. Though the fact that we are living is, at the surface, an everyday concept, it is far from mundane.
The rabbit hole this uncovers is deep and mysterious. It’s full of what literary folk like to call metanarratives, God’s greater story. Fantasy is founded in storytelling, in narrative. We are all living stories every day. We are all likewise trying to escape into other stories to find relief from or to better understand our own. This is the essence of fantasy as a genre of artistic expression. It’s an everyday journey.
So, what do we do with that? What comes naturally to all of us, obviously. We sing.
The Ballad: Tools and Examples
As I contemplated poetry in the context of fantasy, I realized that few poetic forms tell stories better than the ballad, which is, by nature, a song. Today, ballads could come across as cliché ditties or jingles one might hear before a commercial. They’re commonplace. Historically, ballads were sung by traveling bards or minstrels as a broad oral tradition through the ages. We can all tap a foot, and we can all acknowledge a beat or tune for a given day in our lives. This beat is crucial for understanding how fantasy and poetry meet.
But how can the average human compose this mysterious beat? What is a beat comprised of?
The ballad as a narrative-poem-song combination uses two common but important tools for writing poetry: alliteration and repetition. These tools were effective a thousand years ago, and they are equally effective now. Also note that alliteration and repetition appear in many forms besides the ballad. This is all applicable for poetry as an art form.
Although repetition is as familiar as Mother Goose, alliteration is more ambiguous. According to Merriam-Webster, alliteration is the “repetition of usually initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables (such as wild and woolly, threatening throngs).” Notice how the definition includes the word “repetition.” Alliteration and repetition, though not synonymous, are nevertheless closely linked. When reading alliterative verse aloud, it’s difficult to resist nodding your head or tapping your foot from one word to another.
Alliteration and repetition are two of the core components in a poem, along with syllable count, that serve to capture the beat of verse. They are tools not only to count or measure verses and stanzas, but also to highlight images and themes you want readers to recognize. Ultimately, they help us connect the ordinary aspects of life with something inside us that is extraordinary. To illustrate this, let’s look at a couple examples.
An early sampling of the ballad comes from ancient Scotland. The poem was not published until the eighteenth century, but it goes back much further in years. Titled “Sir Patrick Spens,” it tells the story of a knight who is conscripted by his king to bring the princess home from Norway. Rather than interpreting every word of the antiquated dialect, focus on how the words sound together and flow into each other.
The King sits in Dunferline toun,
Drinkin the blude-reid wine
‘O whaur will A get a skeely skipper
Tae sail this new ship o mine?’
Immediately readers ought to detect the alliteration present. We see “Dunferline” and “Drinkin” in the first two verses, and the more obvious “skeely skipper” in line three. Alliteration can occur both sequentially (the words directly following each other) and non-sequentially (placed at different areas in a verse or stanza). There is value to both. Underlying rules of structure in poetry are helpful, but do not prohibit flexibility, depending on what the narrative requires of the words.
A few stanzas later, for good measure (no pun intended), we glimpse an instance of repetition:
‘Tae Noroway, to Noroway,
Tae Noroway ower the faem;
The King’s dauchter o Noroway,
Tis thou maun bring her hame.’
“The first word that Sir Partick read
Sae loud, loud laucht he;
The neist word that Sir Patrick read
The tear blindit his ee.
Along with alliteration, repetition propels readers through the poem. “Da dee da dee da dee da…” Readers are coaxed and allured into the realm of imagination by the words’ rhythm. If magic indeed exists, this would be it. Humans have little to no trouble feeling this beat, no matter an individual’s skills with music. However, repetition is not license to overuse alliteration. Too much alliteration makes verses sound clunky and the song less palatable to read. The same goes for overzealousness with syllables and run-on stanzas without tactful breaks.
As an additional example, I will briefly mention Edgar Alan Poe—which may seem surprising. The man is known for his “weird horror” and early experiments with detective fiction. Yet some of his poetry, “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” exemplifies the form of the ballad. Although both poems employ stanzas of varying lengths (there is no set length per se, as dictated by the rules of the ballad), they both carry the sensation of music.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.” (“The Raven”)
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me. (“Annabel Lee”)
Both poems employ a distinct pattern of repetition that invigorates the internal beat. A beat becomes real when the writer unearths a level path for readers to follow, reminding them of ideas and desires (love, honor, etc.) that are relatable to everyone. The balance is difficult to explain, but the writer feels it by heart. The road to the desired result is admittedly subjective, and better discussed and practiced than confined to the classroom or lecture hall.
When all is said, done, and written, these poems teach us to dance in body and in soul.
A Happily Ever After
Another way to decipher poetry and fantasy’s relationship is to view it as a marriage between the body and soul, earth and heavens, the real and the imaginary. It’s a celebration that life is more complex (as are we) than meets the eye. The poem’s beat is only one facet of that.
With this marriage imagery in mind, it follows that alliteration and repetition join to reveal the poem’s “heartbeat.” When one is writing a poem, it is both fascinating and powerful to envision the poem’s rhythm as a heartbeat. In many ways, man bases the cadence of his expression on his own heartbeat. No matter the type of poem, we fashion art according to our experiences. Poetry in general is a wonderful example of where imagination and everyday life intersect. The ballad is a good place to start if you’re considering writing poetry—and it is a fun place to venture (and return to) as you seek to further understand and appreciate the art of storytelling as Christian readers and writers.