MARIA K. MOOTRY


"Chocolate Mabbie" and "Pearl May Lee":
Gwendolyn Brooks and the Ballad Tradition

Among the five major volumes of Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry, one of the notably recurring poetic forms is the ballad. From " The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie," in her first volume, to " The Ballad of Edie Barrow" in her last major book, Brooks shows a continued interest in this popular or folk art form. Brooks' attraction to ballads is not unique. In their revolt against the artifice, formalism, and abstraction of eighteenth-century classicist poetry, romantic poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth often turned to folk ballads for subjects and techniques. They liked the fact that the ballad, as a folk form, focused on the outcasts of society, including abandoned mothers, prisoners, and beggars. At the same time, they valued the ballad's language and structure because it seemed to avoid the pretensions of eighteenth-century classicist poetry. In his famous preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth maintains that the language should be neutral, simple, and essentially the same as everyday speech. Coleridge and Wordsworth, however, aimed merely to imitate the ballad form in order to demonstrate the value of their new theory of poetics. Brooks' use of the ballad reflects a similar desire to recover a simpler, more direct, poetic form; it also reflects her belief that the poet should "vivify the commonplace."

However, Brooks goes beyond the mere imitation of ballad themes and techniques to create more varied and complex structures. The result is that while on one level her ballads are simple and direct, on another level they are

____________________
From CLA Journal 30, no. 3 ( March 1987). © 1987 College Language Association.

-127-

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