Outlaws, Collectors, Songsters, and Bards: Modern Lyric and the Voices of Ballad History

Walker, Samuel, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia

This project tracks the role of ballad poetry in literary modernism through the lens of balladry’s longstanding connections to lyric expression. Though modernist studies have generally written the ballad out of the story of the age’s poetic developments, many of the experimental hallmarks of modernist lyric can be said to emerge out of encounters with this “archaic” genre. Expanding the geographic scope of ballad criticism, I explore how poets from Ireland, Jamaica, and the United States turned to the voices of ballad history in moments of political and social turmoil to expand the range and possibilities of lyric expression, hybridizing lyric modes with the resources of various demotic traditions. Attentive to balladry’s putative ties to oral composition and dissemination, I show how the genre develops beyond its supposed connection to what George Kittredge called the “singing, dancing throng” and embraces a wide array of vernacular modes, including Anancy storytelling, broadside balladry, Irish bardic performance, and African American musical traditions.

Proceeding from Caroline Levine’s notion of formal “affordances,” my introduction tracks the emergence of this generic hybridity in the Romantic era. As certain subjectivist ideas concerning lyric expression took hold, poets turned to the ballad to revivify lyric with balladry’s social, collective, and oral roots. In Chapter One, “Outlaw Ballads and the Law of Genre,” I examine how two poets, Oscar Wilde and Claude McKay, turned to balladry when confronted with the political and imaginative constraints of incarceration and colonization. Breaking what Jacques Derrida calls the “law of genre,” their poems interweave lyric, dramatic, and narrative modes in regenerations of the outlaw ballad subgenre. Their poems, rooted in traditional, formal poetics, offer alternative models for modernism’s polyvocality and generic promiscuity. Chapter Two, “W. B. Yeats and the Ballad’s Ghostly Voice,” examines how Yeats’s lifelong experiments with the ballad form worked toward a synthesis of lyric expression and bardic performance, toward a textual poetics charged with oral possibility. Chapter Three, “‘Songs of Allusion’: Sterling Brown, Harryette Mullen, and the Roots of Poetic Recycling” argues that critical accounts of the citational mode in modern and contemporary poetry often overlook the ways in which African American vernacular forms, particularly the ballad and the blues, are built on poetic recycling and intertextual play. The poems of Brown and Mullen, embedded in collective, traditional forms of poetic making, suggest new ways of examining modernist lyric’s citational tendencies. The project ends with a coda exploring postmodern balladry’s embrace of variance and examines how the poems of John Ashbery, Cathy Park Hong, Richard Owens, Kate Greenstreet, and Charles Bernstein recover and reinvent ballad history.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
ballad, lyric, modernism , poetry and poetics
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