“Left to Folly or to Fate”: Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s Ballads of Social Unrest

By Brian BrodeurAugust 19, 2022

“Left to Folly or to Fate”: Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s Ballads of Social Unrest
1. “Rise Up, Rise Up, Now”

The ballad, a folkloric mashup of story and song, remains one of the most popular and flexible genres of poetry. As an oral tradition — or the amalgamation of several traditions — it has also been among the most contentious. The border ballads composed throughout the Elizabethan period, for example, recapitulate strained relations between national, ethnic, tribal, and gender groups existing on the fringes of England and Scotland. Often violent, salacious, and politically subversive, such bawdy tales as “The Douglas Tragedy” and “The Demon Lover” celebrate raids, narrate seductions, and recount bloody feuds.

More recently, the ballad has offered modern writers from the United States a way of approaching the most divisive issues in the national discourse, including war, poverty, race, class, and sexuality. Unlike examples from the vast catalog of American protest music, these are literary ballads: narratives composed in ballad or ballad-like stanzas (think “Amazing Grace” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), but meant to be read on the page, not heard from the stage. Literary ballads of social unrest are not strictly “protest poetry.” Though they address specific political issues, they move beyond the limitations of satire, polemics, or prophecy and adopt conventions that even Robert Burns would’ve recognized as balladic.

Of course, any poetic form might work for any subject, but the ballad’s flexibility, haunting rhythms, and, especially, its roots in folk culture and history of political subversion make it uniquely well-suited to volatile topical material. As a narrative genre, it also allows poets to show rather than tell, to present an issue dramatically through human stories shaped into meter and rhyme and rich in action and concrete images. Modern American examples such as “Robert Penn Warren’s “The Ballad of Billie Potts” (1943), Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner” (1962), Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” (1968), and Marilyn Nelson’s “The Ballad of Aunt Geneva” (1990) have helped writers and readers connect with and make sense of difficult realities by transforming them into singular tales.

Yet literary ballads have appeared in diminishing numbers. In this essay, I’ll look at two mid-20th-century examples, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Anniad” (1949) and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” (1965), in order to show how effectively the ballad can accommodate the most complicated and painful issues of the day. “The Anniad” is a tragi-comic ballad confronting gender inequities relating to race and class. “The Burglar of Babylon” recounts the violent downfall of an “enemy of society” who grew up orphaned and indigent in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most impoverished favelas. Though written in response to the mid-20th-century socio-political pressures, both poems remain tragically relevant in the 21st century and suggest a way forward for contemporary poets struggling to articulate the challenges of our time.

2. “The Minuets of Memory”

Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Anniad” has been widely discussed, but critics have routinely defined the genre of this poem as mock-epic, rather than appreciating it as a ballad. At under 300 lines, however, this poem seems too brief to be considered strictly mock-epic; Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1714), for example, weighs in at 793 lines, while John Barlow’s The Hasty-Pudding (1793) hogs a whole 1,200. Nor does “The Anniad” present a trivial subject, as most mock-epics do. Instead, Brooks’s poem portrays Annie Allen, a young African-American woman, as a tragic protagonist within a genre historically dominated by white men. Rather than satirizing a ruling class, like Pope’s poem, or ridiculing the hypocrisies of dominant thinkers, like Barlow’s, “The Anniad” presents a serious narrative disguised as mock-epic. Brooks achieves this illusion by way of Du Bois’s double-consciousness; devices such as exoticized diction and procrustean meter allow Brooks to show her protagonist, in Du Bois’s terms, “through the eyes of others,” refracted through the Euro-American traditions Brooks both embraces and censures. In effect, Brooks launches a sly critique not of her protagonist as a “type,” but of the racist, classist, and patriarchal socio-political systems that the poet resisted throughout her career.    

In order to understand this doubleness, it’s important to consider the place and time in which Brooks wrote and set her narrative, 1940s Chicago, as well as the literary milieu that received the poem. Though Annie Allen eventually became the first book by an African-American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, Brooks’s casting of the eponymous character as protagonist was risky — a move that the white-dominated society of the 1940s might’ve viewed with suspicion or outright contempt. In 1950, the book contended for the Pulitzer with, among other titles, William Carlos Williams’s Selected Poems (1949) and Robert Frost’s Complete Poems (1949). The jury included Louis Untermeyer, a close friend of Frost, and Alfred Kreymborg, a close friend of Williams. Such was the milieu in which Brooks found herself competing: a cozy, white, male, northeastern, and patrician scene.

Brooks responded to this hegemony by composing a narrative in which the tragic hero is young, black, poor, midwestern, and female. Disguising “The Anniad” as mock-epic was one way of circumventing outright rejection by publishers, critics, and the reading public. By appearing to subject her protagonist to mockery, but actually treating her as a heroic character, Brooks encourages midcentury and contemporary readers alike to question our own biases and assumptions. While Pound struggled to make the fragments of his Cantos cohere, and Williams responded to The Waste Land with his fragmented mosaic Paterson, Brooks thwarted the heroic scope and aristocratic upholstery of epic by opting for the rawness and immediacy of a more popular genre.

Brooks, like her Harlem Renaissance predecessors, is attracted to the humanity of black lives, rendering all of her community’s triumphs and absurdities in poems that engage the whole human spectrum. Specifically, “The Anniad” is concerned with a central protagonist trapped within her own delusions of heroic grandeur — delusions perpetuated by the family, culture, and society out of which she emerges and from which she cannot escape. These fantasies, however, are deeply rooted in a necessary psychological response to adversity: they are Annie’s way of coping with poverty, war, and a divided society.

Keeping in mind the standard definition of the ballad, “The Anniad” includes dramatic presentation of action, but with what we might refer to as lyrical omissions that leave some crucial plot points open to interpretation. These omissions, common to the ballad, are anathema to epic, which tends to belabor action rather than abridge it. Brooks’s poem also features a third-person narrator who offers little authorial commentary, though certainly more than we find in traditional ballads consisting primarily of dialog. Rather than focusing on a single crucial episode, Brooks’s poem features a character during a crucial stage in her personal development: Annie’s discovery of the pleasures and pains of erotic love, an aspect of life that she idealizes.

Brooks also takes advantage of one of M. H. Abrams’s “set formulas” of the ballad, “incremental repetition.” These are passages “in which a line or stanza is repeated, but with an addition that advances the story.” As in the phrase “my jolly young man” from “Lord Randal” or “How came that blood” in “The Dead Brother,” Brooks repeats the imperative, “Think of sweet and chocolate” seven times, employing variations, to mark important transitions throughout the narrative. “The Anniad” begins:

Think of sweet and chocolate,
Left to folly or to fate,
Whom the higher gods forgot,
Whom the lower gods berate;
Physical and underfed
Fancying on her featherbed
What was never and is not.

This first stanza highlights some of the contradictions essential to understanding Annie Allen and her story. From identical syntactical arrangement in the first two lines, “fate” is equated with bitterness (“chocolate”), and “folly” with sweetness (“sweet”) — all of which leaves the protagonist “underfed.” “Chocolate” and “sweet” also refer to Annie’s race and complexion; she is a darker-skinned African American woman with “black and boisterous hair.” Yet Brooks, in her positioning of a young black woman as hero, does not merely celebrate this fact. Instead, Brooks opts for a more realistic treatment, allowing Annie to be subverted and metaphorically enslaved by the “master-calls” of love, which she experiences most palpably as romantic fantasies.

These fantasies, however, have been encouraged, even nurtured by the “lower gods” of Annie’s community and society. The adversity of Annie’s “fate” stems primarily from sociological factors such as acculturation, gender inequities, and intra-racial discrimination. Unlike the divine entities Annie fantasizes directing her fate, Annie is “physical” (embodied), yet she privileges daydreams over reality, valuing “What was never and is not” over her own wellbeing. The life that most engages her exists only within the realm of fancy, which Coleridge famously viewed as inferior to imagination; fancy merely combines objects and appearances into different shapes, rather than fusing them into a new reality. This becomes an important distinction as the poem introduces the “man of tan” to whom Annie eventually loses her virginity.

Another incremental repetition takes place as we shift from the first to second stanzas, both of which contrast the “What was never and is not” of Annie’s inexperience of physical love with the “What is ever and is not” of the “buxom berries” and “fairy-sweet” of her girlish ideals — how Annie seeks, for example, a “paladin” rather than a man. Soon, however, Annie encounters physical love, which she construes as “a hot theopathy” that “consumes” the sweetness of her “gilt humility.” Evocative mashups of Germanic and Latinate diction, as well as physical and metaphysical states, these phrases are typical of Brooks’s rich, unusual language and understated puns, like the one on “guilt” in “gilt.”  

The grammatical mood of these initial stanzas is also worth noting. Stanzas one, three, and five begin with the imperative “Think.” This gesture establishes an immediate relationship between the narrator and the audience, whom she implores, somewhat cryptically, to “Think of ripe and rompabout” and “Think of thaumaturgic lass.” Unlike the didactic 18th-century English ballad “The Children in the Wood,” which urges, “Now ponder well, you parents dear,” in order to communicate a moral, Brooks’s imperatives are more psychological; she calls upon her audience to engage more fully with her protagonist so that we might understand Annie’s desires and motivations. One of the ways she achieves this psychological intimacy is through diction. The phrase “thaumaturgic lass,” for example, functions as a kind of epithet for Annie, but it does so from the protagonist’s perspective: Annie would classify herself “lass” rather than “girl” and “thaumaturgic,” with its hagiographic associations, rather than “eccentric,” “irrational,” “withdrawn,” or “delusional.” Ironically, Brooks compels us to use our imagination to conceive of a protagonist who suffers from an imaginative deficiency, who prefers the “sweet” of fancy over the work of imagination.

Brook’s sweet-bitter “Think” imperatives also emphasize other paradoxes essential to Annie’s story. The most condensed example of this uniting of opposites occurs in a single paradoxical phrase: “set excesses.” Though one doesn’t think of “excesses” (plural) as being “set” or limited, Brooks, unlike Annie, realizes that all indulgences must end. Evocatively, Brooks drops this phrase (in which it is difficult not to hear “sex”) at the precise instant of Annie’s “metamorphosis” from virgin to non-virgin, in the stanza that immediately precedes Annie’s lover being drafted into the “reveille” of basic training. Here, the poem employs a rapid-fire shift from sex to war, establishing not so much a contrast as a correlation between the “gape [and] go” of intercourse with the phallic “columns” and “rifles” of war; this reading is emphasized by Brooks’s use of “sacrifice” to describe Annie’s loss of virginity.

The form of the poem, too, introduces a central paradox. Brooks chose a mode intentionally antiquated to write about subjects which were viscerally current. The most conspicuous American example of Brooks’s meter (trochaic tetrameter) is Longfellow’s controversial Song of Hiawatha (1855), which comprises over 5,000 lines. The many ethnographic critiques of Longfellow’s poem point to the poet’s appropriation of Ojibwe, Sauk, and Iroquois lore and his perpetuation of Native American stereotypes. While Longfellow’s intentions were to celebrate native peoples and to preserve certain aspects of a diminishing culture, he frames Hiawatha as a “noble savage” figure, suggesting that Native Americans have no place in a modern American context, other than as supplanted remnants of prehistory.

Brooks acknowledges these issues by appropriating Longfellow’s romantic meter in a modern poem about an urban, black, poor, and female protagonist. Where Longfellow exoticizes his protagonist, Brooks renders Annie with all of her strengths and flaws in a metrical framework that embodies the protagonist’s own romantic delusions. By framing Annie’s story within Longfellow’s romantic meter, Brooks embodies DuBois’s “two unreconciled strivings”: the performative and the sincere. On the one hand, Brooks is performing blackness through the popular form and genre of the ballad, presenting her narrative of black struggle through the acceptable mode of mock epic (or at least appearing to do so). On the other, the actual story of Annie’s self-delusions encouraged by an oppressed community and oppressive society is tragically real, and the meter is a psychological manifestation of that reality.

After Annie’s “tan man” has returned from overseas, he abandons Annie for a “maple banshee” (a lighter-skinned African American woman), and lapses into alcoholism. Left only with the “bodiless bee stings” of her memories of love, Annie, though still governed in some ways by romantic fantasies, seeks to amalgamate imagination and fancy. Again, Brooks embodies this amalgamation in a crucial phrase: “The minuets of memory.” If we recall Hobbes’s vision of memory and imagination as a single faculty, and if we equate “minuets” with romantic fantasy (no one is actually dancing), then this phrase, with which Brooks ends the poem, hybridizes the psychological forces competing within the protagonist’s mind. 

Here are the poem’s final stanzas, which return to the imperative with an important adjustment of tone:

Think of tweaked and twenty-four
Fuchsias gone or gripped or gay,
All hay-colored that was green.
Soft aesthetic looted, lean.
Crouching low, behind a screen,
Pock-marked eye-light, and the sore
Eaglets of old pride and prey.

Think of almost thoroughly
Derelict and dim and done.
Stroking swallows from the sweat.
Fingering faint violet.
Hugging old and Sunday sun.
Kissing in her kitchenette
The minuets of memory.

Brooks frames Annie here as the proverbial ruined maid: “tweaked and twenty-four.” Given the modern urban context of the poem, however, this archaic trope of lost innocence comes freighted with irony. Though Annie has experienced physical love and betrayal, she cannot or will not abandon her girlish fantasies of herself as doomed heroine within her own romantic saga; her role has simply shifted from chaste maiden to fallen woman. The “sweat,” “sore,” and “faint violet” (with its implication of bruises) of lived experience cannot be avoided. But it can be transmogrified through the rose-colored lens of Annie’s optimistic sensibility, which is strong enough to refract “hay-colored” into “green,” an image that introduces pastoral nostalgia into the cramped kitchenette.

The insistence of the poem’s meter emphasizes this willfulness, mimicking the strenuousness with which Annie has to work in order to maintain her illusions. In this, Annie can be seen as actually, rather than ironically, heroic. Optimism is Annie’s way of coping with hardship. In these last stanzas, Brooks compels the reader to ask: Who among us doesn’t require delusions to persevere through adversity? Through her invocation and manipulation of the mock-epic genre, Brooks presents Annie at the beginning of the poem as a character worthy of ridicule. But once we “think” it through, as the speaker repeatedly asks us to do, we realize that we have been peering into a mirror all along. This constitutes the truly radical challenge of Brooks’s ballad, which obliges a largely white and male literary elite to see itself within the image of a young, black, midwestern woman.

3. “On the Fair Green Hills of Rio”

Elizabeth Bishop, who favorably reviewed Annie Allen in 1950, praised Brooks for her compelling treatment of “Northern” black experience. Bishop’s few poems that directly engage with overtly political subjects share the elements she admired in Brooks: realism, drama, lyric expression, freedom within formal constraints, and narrative structures that ironize the conventions they adopt. Bishop’s political poems, however, focus on southern experience, providing a kind of hemispheric antipode to the socio-economic plight of black Chicagoans that we find in Brooks’s work.

Unlike her contemporary Robert Lowell, Bishop values geography over history; “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” Bishop writes in “The Map,” the poem that opens her first book as well as all subsequent “Collected” and “Complete” volumes. In her Brazilian political poems, geography and history meet. These poems bring to the fore the turbulent, often violent socio-economic tensions that roiled the Americas in the post-World War II period, but they do so from a white, privileged, and decidedly northern perspective.

Bishop affects an outsider’s remove, but critiques it, implicating the “I” who observes and reports. As in “Questions of Travel,” Bishop repeatedly asks, “Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theaters?” Is it ethical to treat human spectacle as entertainment, to observe “the dead man” in Mexico and the “little pockmarked prostitutes” of Marrakesh as if the traveler were chomping popcorn at a matinee? Bishop’s recursive use of this question throughout her career suggests an honest answer: No — yet the desire is there, despite Aimé Césaire’s warning that “a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”

Of all the poems in Bishop’s oeuvre, her poems about Brazil have generated the most controversy. Debates tend to involve Bishop’s culpability (or lack thereof) in that country’s colonial past and the poverty tourism of its present and future. Adrienne Rich, for example, criticizes the “risky undertaking” of Bishop’s portraits of people of color, while others accuse Bishop of celebrating colonialism. And yet the more overtly political poems express Bishop’s essentially moral stance. This morality stems from the poet’s deep aversion to injustice — an aversion rooted in the Protestantism of her youth and extending to her aesthetic practice of close anthropological and biological scrutiny, her commitment, as she put it in a 1948 essay about Marianne Moore, to “devotedly and minutely observing.”

That said, even as Bishop exposes the ugliest offense, her poems remain perennially “awful but cheerful” in style and tone, an irony that may seem perplexing. “The Burglar of Babylon” features a narrator positioned at a close yet safe proximity to danger. The narrator of this tale is a privileged onlooker who gazes through binoculars as police pursue a thief and “killer” nicknamed Micuçú through Morro da Babilônia, one of Rio’s poorest slums, or favelas, located near the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Leme. These favelas are makeshift communities that proliferated in the 1940s through 1970s when clusters of squatters from Brazil’s impoverished north occupied vacant land on the outskirts of the city, causing Rio to sprawl, as Bishop noted in a 1965 essay, “like a lopsided starfish.”  The poem’s five introductory quatrains establish the ostensibly objective point of view Bishop will complicate as her tale unfolds. Serving as cultural representative of Rio’s upper classes, the narrator regards the growth of each favela as “a fearful stain,” a simile that speaks to racist Eurocentric fears.

At first, the narrator’s view of these poor and desperate migrants seems merely callous, as she compares a “million people” to “lichen” clinging and spreading along the hillsides. But if we recall that the word favela most likely stems from the name of a plant native to rural northeastern Brazil (Jatropha phyllacantha), we realize that Bishop’s simile is linguistically and historically appropriate. In other words, Bishop inherits rather than invents the idea that Rio’s slums spread like an invasive species. Despite this fact, a note of callousness sounds in the narrator’s voice, as it must have in Bishop’s. Rather than concealing this, Bishop puts her privilege on full display.

At the same time, Bishop’s narrator cannot banish feelings of compassion, nor can she access objective truth. Bishop compares the favelados in their “confused migration” to “a million sparrows” constructing “nests, or houses, / Out of nothing at all, or air.” This passage makes two allusions to the Gospel of Matthew. First, Bishop points to 10:29, in which Jesus consoles the Apostles by claiming that God is present even when a sparrow falls, suggesting that God watches over the favelados. Second, Bishop’s use of meiosis (“houses, / Out of nothing at all, or air”) references the famous “Behold, the birds of the air” passage in 6:26, which implies that favelados will be provided for, even if they, like the ancient Babylonians, build their “confused” houses in the sky.

Bishop’s sympathies are also evident in the form she employs. By casting this narrative in ballad stanzas, Bishop evokes a tradition of Brazilian folk poetry practiced by traveling “singers” throughout the northeast. In Bishop’s prose account Brazil, which remained unpublished in her lifetime, she noted that these singers produced “improvisations, sung to their own accompaniment” on violins or guitars “but in strict, ancient forms and meters.” These “memories,” as the singers called their poems on sensational current events, were often published as pamphlets and sold on the streets, like broadside ballads; the tradition has come to be known as cordel literature (literature on a string). It’s interesting to note that the Micuçú saga actually occurred in 1964, the year Bishop wrote the poem, which she referred to in a letter as “last week’s news in the form of poetry.” As if in further homage to this popular genre, Bishop later published the poem as The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (1968), a special illustrated chapbook edition designed for children.

In keeping with the balladic conventions of cordel poems, Bishop takes advantage of pathos throughout “The Burglar of Babylon” as she narrates Micuçú’s final hours. An illustration can be found in the following passage, involving the accidental shooting by a “nervous” soldier of his commanding officer:

He hit him in three places;
      The other shots went wild.
The soldier had hysterics
      And sobbed like a little child.

The dying man said, “Finish
      The job we came here for.”
He committed his soul to God
      And his sons to the Governor.

They ran and got the priest,
      And he died in hope of Heaven
— A man from Pernambuco,
      The youngest of eleven.

In these stanzas, Bishop draws a connection between Micuçú and the officer. Though on opposite sides of the law, both men find themselves embroiled within complicated socio-economic circumstances beyond their control. In their respective roles as fugitive and officer, they’ve been forced into a conflicting yet interdependent relationship. Raised in one of the most impoverished favelas, Micuçú, who has a “mulata” daughter, has been compelled by external factors into a life of crime. The officer, who comes from a state in the northeast region of Brazil infamous for receiving large numbers of African slaves during the colonial period, likely shares some African ancestry (and history) with the man he pursues. Both men, it seems, have felt the same political pressures; though they have responded differently to these pressures, both suffer the same violent end, suggesting that there are few, if any, avenues of escape for the disadvantaged.

Next, Bishop draws a contrast between soldiers/favelados and the upper-middle class residents of Leme, including the narrator. Though she never uses the first-person pronoun in “Burglar,” Bishop, as observer, joins the “Rich people in apartments” observing the action. As Lorie Goldensohn points out, Bishop corroborates this in a 1964 letter to her aunt Grace Bowers: “I am one of the ‘rich with binoculars’!” But Bishop’s view of Micuçú is closer to that of victim than perpetrator. The following stanzas, for example, bring us close to Micuçú’s suffering through the haunting, aloof figure of a lighthouse: 

      And all night, under the stars,

Micuçú hid in grasses
      Or sat in a little tree,
Listening for sounds, and staring
      At the lighthouse out at sea.

And the lighthouse stared back at him,
      Till finally it was dawn.
He was soaked with dew, and hungry,
      On the hill of Babylon.

The lighthouse provides a visual parallel with the binoculars of the rich, but on a monolithic scale that Micuçú cannot ignore. Like the rich, the lighthouse “stared back at him,” casting a cold eye on the exhausted and starving fugitive, becoming a menacing searchlight, a reminder that he is being pursued and that “he knew he was going to die” (a line Bishop repeats twice). Yet, as long as the lighthouse shines, Micuçú feels relatively safe. It’s the arrival of the “ugly” sun, “Like a raw egg on a plate,” that will “seal his fate,” as if Micuçú’s violent death were inevitable, even preordained. Bishop achieves this interiority by a slight shift in perspective that approximates, here more than anywhere else in the poem, a close-third point of view.   

After the soldiers locate Micuçú (“he got it, behind the ear”), Bishop provides her own parting shot, but one directed at the privileged onlookers. Micuçú’s grieving aunt, who runs “a little drink shop,” speaks to her patrons:

“We have always been respected.
      My shop is honest and clean.
I loved him, but from a baby
      Micuçú was always mean.

“We have always been respected.
      His sister has a job.
Both of us gave him money.
      Why did he have to rob?

“I raised him to be honest,
      Even here, in Babylon slum.”
The customers had another,
      Looking serious and glum.

But one of them said to another,
      When he got outside the door,
“He wasn’t much of a burglar,
      He got caught six times — or more.”

Addressing her patrons (members of her community, but also the source of her livelihood), the aunt states the platitude “We have always been respected.” Saying this sentence once seems mildly suspicious: Why would the patrons need to be reminded of how much they respect her? Repeating it reinforces the dubiousness: The lady doth protest too much.

Through her delicate use of irony here and elsewhere, Bishop reminds us that powerful external forces are at play: the governor, the economy, even nature itself. Rather than acknowledging these forces, the aunt blames a circumstantial innate cause, accusing Micuçú (in contrast to her “honest” and “clean” shop) of being inherently dishonest and unclean. Yet her explanation is not as simple as nature over nurture. How dishonest and “mean” can a “baby” be, and does the fact that it is an orphan in the slums have nothing to do with what becomes of it? The aunt’s disparaging of baby Micuçú, whom she raised, indicates a refusal to acknowledge any culpability in Micuçú’s crimes (if he committed them at all), which makes her seem all the more guilty, even to her tipsy patrons.

Lowell, who read “Burglar” in manuscript, referred to it as “surely one of the great ballads in the language.” It was Bishop’s uncanny talent for, as Marianne Moore put it, “exteriorizing of the interior” that allowed Bishop to express personal struggles through the depiction of public circumstances. Bishop’s conflicting feelings about her role as a foreign artist writing about Brazilian society found a compelling objective correlative in Micuçú’s story. Lowell acknowledged this, but also shrewdly observed that Bishop’s ballad simultaneously “tells a lot about your own judgements on your society, obliquely.”

During a time of radical and violent societal change in both Brazil and the United States, Bishop’s “The Burglar of Babylon” and Brooks’s “The Anniad” afforded their authors the opportunity to explore issues of race, gender, and class in language and in forms recognizable to any stratum. These poems provide strong evidence of the ballad’s flexibility and suitability for contemporary political subjects. The power of these midcentury ballads of social unrest lies in their ability to transform individual tragedies into subtle yet clear indictments of unjust systems. “The Anniad” and “The Burglar of Babylon” nudge poetry out of the classroom and into the streets, where the ballad originated, and where poetry still belongs.


Brian Brodeur is the author of four poetry books, most recently Some Problems with Autobiography (2023), winner of the 2022 New Criterion Poetry Prize, and Every Hour Is Late (2019). New poems and criticism appear in Gettysburg Review, Hopkins Review, Literary Matters, Southern Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. Brian lives with his wife and daughter in the Whitewater River Valley. He teaches at Indiana University East.

LARB Contributor

Brian Brodeur is the author of four poetry books, most recently Some Problems with Autobiography (2023), winner of the 2022 New Criterion Poetry Prize, and Every Hour Is Late (2019). New poems and criticism appear in Gettysburg Review, Hopkins Review, Literary Matters, Southern Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. Brian lives with his wife and daughter in the Whitewater River Valley. He teaches at Indiana University East.


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