Who's Writing the Real "Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri"?

On Nov 29, a poet named Shannon Barber posted an "Open Letter to The Paris Review" complaining about the poem that venerable literary magazine had chosen to publish under the title "The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri."

"Right now just about every Black person I know is in pain, wrote Barber." "We have to see on social media how many of our sometimes beloved friends are racists. We have to watch people who could be us or our children be murdered and blamed for their own deaths."

"Many of us are reaching out to our elders, to other black people we admire for comfort. For something."

"I saw the title of the poem, and I had this moment of gleaming hope that there would be words to help. To provide a balm or something."

She closes her heartbreakingly disappointed letter, "God damn it White people get your shit together."

Barber is not the only poet I know who was offended by The Paris Review's decision to publish a convoluted, emotionally detached poem by a white male under the title "The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri" -- and to do so now, in the midst of the still-roiling national upheaval of horror and disgust at the fatally toxic fallout of white privilege. Many other poets, Black and White, have also gone online to express their disillusionment and dismay at the journal's, to put it mildly, insensitive choice.

Amid the general sadness and anxiety in the community of poets, I have found myself reflecting that one of the key lessons of this moment is not just about what we, engaged, vulnerable citizens of this Republic, should be able to expect from our police force, our senior poets or the editors of our leading literary journals. It's also about what we have a right to expect from poets, from poems and from particular kinds of poems.

There's something particular promised by the word "ballad" -- something that had a role in making Barber's disappointment far keener, more a slap in the face, than it would have been if the poem in The Paris Review had been called simply "Poem on Ferguson, Missouri."

The word "ballad" promises to speak to the heart. It promises authenticity, truth, justice and a voice for the voiceless -- just what was missing from the Ferguson Grand Jury decision. No wonder Barber was hoping that a poem under the title "The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri" would help her to get through this period, help her, as she put it, "make sense of the senseless."

From its earliest roots among anonymous British ballad-singers (most of whom were likely women, centuries before women were allowed to publish poetry under their own names), the ballad has kept alive, among other modes, a long and authentic tradition of truth-telling on behalf of the powerless and the struggling. Indeed, there is something empowering if not reassuring in the very form of the ballad, with its short lines and recurring rhymes (part of the reason why it was a ballad-like poem that provided solace most widely after the 9-11 attacks, Auden's September 1, 1939.)

But the ballad I have been thinking about the most this week, as one possible model for a real "Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri," is one of the most lasting literary gems left to us by the Civil Rights battles of the 1960s, Dudley Randall's justly popular "Ballad of Birmingham." Randall's use of the form strikes an eloquent balance between timeless dignity and urgent emotion. The cinematic zoom effect in the final stanza opens the poem emotionally to a wide audience while simultaneously establishing its literary genealogy among the earliest English ballads where such shifts of scale were a standard ballad technique. A courageously expressive poem such as this, and the long and powerful poetic tradition of which it is a part, could bring such power, such catharsis, such courage, such compassion to sustain and inspire a new ballad that might help to "make sense of the senseless" situation our nation is struggling with right now.

And the good news is that titles can't be copyrighted.

Poet Annie Finch is the author of 18 books of and about poetry, most recently Spells: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2013) and A Poet's Ear: A Handbook of Meter and Form (University of Michigan Press, 2013). She teaches poets through her website anniefinch.com and at her online poetry school, Poetcraftcircles.com, opening soon.