Bending the rules

Major movements forward in the development of poetic form have often been achieved by abandoning accepted conventions. The Romantic poets’ parting with the heroic couplet and Walt Whitman’s no-rhyme, free-verse revolution are two examples.

Vision and courage propel creative change, and artists working in many forms learn from what preceded them. Degas and Renoir were schooled in the disciplines of life drawing, and that early discipline informed the loosely structured figures of the works through which we know them.

Writers, and poets in particular, are not alone in being able to develop their craft from a practice of the traditional. The sonnet, the ballad, the triolet, the villanelle and the ode all have their own histories, quirks and conventions. Experimentation with each of them is a productive way of finding out which forms come easily and which demand greater endeavour.

OCA creative writing student Miriam Scott draws on the French ballade form in her poem Reply to the Ballade of 7/7, while developing its conventions to meet her creative intent. Reflecting on her own survival seven years after she was diagnosed with cancer, she looks back to the 7 July terrorist attack in London, which took place the day after she was given the news of her illness and in which a person close to her died.

The poem has the three main stanzas of equal length of the French form, but with two lines added to the standard eight. The last line of each stanza is a refrain, as it was for her medieval French counterparts, but it is broken out from the body of each stanza and spoken in a different voice:

‘Here the imagination falters, haunted

by your voices – dead, injured, bereaved –

that never leave me. “Bone fragment

From the bomber pierced your eye.”

…from that pierced eye, what can you see?…

There is a concluding verse or envoi. Here, Miriam has added a line to the usual four in a prayer which draws together all the dead in a concluding act of redemption:

‘May you find the blessing in earth’s darkness.

May you dance in fire, never burned.’

Through writing in the ballade form, Miriam discovered something new and fundamental about her own writing process, at the same time as being mindful of how she was adapting and adding to it for her own purposes: ‘Reply to the Ballade of 7/7 was written and repeatedly revised entirely by hand, something I had never done before and will certainly try again. The structure of the original ballade is followed in outline but I aim for a (non-iambic) tetrameter to underpin the more conversational tone used here. Instead of the refrain I place between the verses three fragmentary, rhyming lines (suggesting other background voices) and finish with a five line prayer for the spirits of the lost, in which the bombers are included.’

Reply to the Ballade of 7/7 has been shortlisted for the Torbay Open Poetry Competition at the Torbay Festival of Poetry, which takes place between 25 and 29 October.  For those not able to hear Miriam reading it there at the winners’ party, here are all four verses and three rhyming lines.

Reply to the Ballade of 7/7

True, I wasn’t there. I can imagine you, though,

locked into London’s Rush Hour,

your red train-worm rattle-and-rolling

you towards an ordinary July day.

“Never seen a train so packed,” you said,

pushing in anyway, as the doors slid open.

Here the imagination falters, haunted

by your voices – dead, injured, bereaved –

that never leave me.  “Bone fragment

from the bomber pierced your eye.”


…from that pierced eye, what can you see?…


Another cancer scare hit me

the day before 7/7.

London was busy getting the Olympics.

Seven years to wait – how would I make it?

I did, you didn’t. False alarm. Death was

on your case, but still hovering close by me.

I watched in horror as local bombers

stole your lives, blasted away their own.

I never dreamed Leeds’ Dewsbury Road

held a door into underground darkness.


…may your spirits rise and be free…


Could it be that you, the bombers,

silent now, eternally other,

longed to have your victims feel the tug

of that birth cord roping you, the bombers,

to countries Imperial GB chopped up,

countries you so longed to die for?

It’s one way of making a bridge, I suppose.

After 7/7 I visited two Leeds mosques –

I felt I owed it to your victims, somehow.

No clues there.  People were very courteous.


…looking for answers, I touched a mystery…


May you find the blessing in earth’s darkness.

May you dance in fire, never burned.

May you rise into kindly air.

May your spirit travel down to the sea.

May your ancestors come to greet you.


Miriam Scott, October 2012


[Image above: Walt Whitman by Mathew Brady c1860-65]


  1. Eileen 22 October 2012 at 12:42 pm

    I find this a powerful piece of writing. One of the things I like about it is that the structure is clearly there and visible, but it underpins the voice/story, which speaks clearly and directly above it all. There are hidden depths and questions and things to reflect on, but the poem is simply and directly expressed and pulls you along on its own imaginative journey.

  2. Joanna Ezekiel 22 October 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Miriam wrote this poem as part of an assignment for the Poetry: Form and Experience Level Two Creative Writing module. Her poem is a good example of a poem that uses the structure of a traditional form, but benefits from experimentation with stanza length, internal rhyme, a refrain, and extended imagery. In this way, Miriam has made the course materials her own, without becoming too hung up on syllable counts and end rhymes. Well done Miriam.
    Elizabeth, where did you find the Walt Whitman picture? It is stunning.

  3. Elizabeth 23 October 2012 at 9:15 am

    The credit for finding this striking photograph of Walt Whitman is due to Gareth, Joanna. He tells me it is by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and from the US National Archive. It is good of Miriam to allow her work from the Poetry: Form and Experience Level Two Creative Writing module to be shared with a wider audience. I hope other students will be generous enough to do the same.

  4. Joanna Ezekiel 23 October 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks, Elizabeth. It certainly is striking.

  5. Miriam Scott 24 October 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I am very honoured to have these sensitive comments about my “Reply to the Ballade of 7/7” posted on the blog. However the poem I was told was going up was “Ballade of 7/7” (spot the difference – the course I was doing had me writing quite a number of poems in pairs) and this is the poem that was short-listed for the Torbay Poetry competition. Just in case anyone came expecting to hear the poem in the blog this is what I shall be reading this Saturday 27th October.
    Ballade of 7/7

    You, who were not there, who cannot know
    how it was, when the dark came roaring down
    and we were trapped, broken, nowhere to go,
    bewildered, lost, desperate to be found,
    just going to work on London’s Underground;
    Help us, please help. Compassion’s what we need;
    let’s stand together, no more you and me.
    People are frail and frail we rise and fall.
    Life comes in and goes out just like the sea.
    Treasure the one life given to us all.

    It wasn’t only us, our loved ones too
    were wounded and destroyed along with us
    for we who died, nothing dear ones could do
    but hoard and cherish what was left of us:
    jumpers, photos, memories, detritus
    of loving shattered by the purest chance;
    early or late to work, just happenstance
    took us away, frail we rise and fall.
    Life comes in and goes out just like the sea.
    Treasure the one life given to us all.

    Doors blown off, twisted metal, windows out,
    clothes blown off by the blast, we gazed on Death,
    near naked, helpless, seeing him walk, no doubt,
    right down the train, breathing away our breath,
    crushing souls, arms and legs strewn in his path.
    Bone fragment from the bomber pierced your eye;
    your trainer, leg attached, hung way up high.
    People are frail. Yes, frail we rise and fall.
    Life comes in and goes out just like the sea.
    Treasure the one life given to us all.

    We’re only people, just the same as you,
    who wanted to live: heartily, kindly, true.
    People are frail, and frail we rise and fall.
    Life shines and glows more than I ever knew.
    Let kindness be a bridge between us all.

    Miriam Scott

    This poem was based not on the victorian version in the course material but the original medieval french one, which is much starker. I follow the basic structure of the original though some features have been changed, for example the 2 – 3 line refrain is a single line in the original.

    By the way the personal information in the post was included without checking with me, and it is not entirely accurate – but for goodness sake what is this compared to the suffering in the poem – and the fact that three guys – who have fortunately been caught were planning to repeat the whole thing on a far bigger scale!

    “Let kindness be a bridge between us all”!

  6. Joanna Ezekiel 24 October 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Apologies to Miriam for naming the poem ‘Reply to the Ballade of 7/7’ as the one that was shortlisted for a prize instead of ‘Ballade of 7/7’, and sorry for any inconvenience caused. It’s great that you have posted the shortlisted poem and your reflections, Miriam, which is further proof of how you are making the course materials your own. Enjoy your prizegiving ceremony on Saturday!


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