This is the twenty-sixth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.
Contemporary poetry, the kind that gets nominated for literary awards and wins grant money for its authors, rarely contains a single door-slam of a gun shot. There are no knife fights. Johnny Law isn’t on the hunt for a thief. Outlaws aren’t pondering their choices. There are some notable exceptions. (James Fenton’s poem “Cut-Throat Christ,: about the lower depths of Manila, immediately comes to mind.) And there have been poets of note who were criminals themselves (Ezra Pound, of course, but also the 15th century French poet Francois Villon, the Caravaggio of versifiers). But with poetry as of late, we are largely in an arena where the ever-enduring themes of popular storytelling are sorely missing.
It’s a curious absence, given how if we’re talking about poetry in its most ubiquitous form—that is, songs—crime is a staple. From narcocorridos to gangsta rap, to the blues to country, and from as non-threatening physical specimens as Jim Morrison to Nick Cave, mayhem and violence has been rhapsodized and lamented. That such poetry is revered by so many, points to a missed opportunity for “serious” poets. (Though, given the awful deaths of some of these songwriters, clearly such profitable popularity isn’t without a high cost.)
Tom Pickard is a “serious” poet, and in “Ballad of Jamie Allan” he takes a nearly journalistic approach to a life of crime. There are songs here (some of them formed the basis of Pickard’s “folk opera” of “Ballad”), but also just-the-facts-ma’am documentation of misdeeds and punishment along the border between England and Scotland in the 18th and early 19th century. (According to Pickard, the area was steeped in lawlessness for centuries. Indeed it was. As Fox Butterfield pointed out in his book “All God’s Children,” about the scourge of crime in America, many of these Scots-Irish people brought with them a penchant for bloodshed when they immigrated to pre-Revolutionary War America, and turned South Carolina into a landscape characterized by slayings and maimings.)
Jamie Allan was a celebrated Scottish musician, regaling royalty with his pipes, and when not doing that, stealing horses, breaking out of jail, repeatedly deserting from the army (only after receiving his pay for signing up) and taking up with his niece. Despite all his scrapes with the law, he managed to stay alive well into his 70s, when he died in his cell. What Pickard does so well in his re-telling of Allan’s life is to render some of the crimes in plain terms, with the sort of shoulder-shrugging a minimum-wage employee would use to talk about his day at work, and others with bravado and humor, such as when Allan skips out of the military with pay in hand and buys himself a new set of clothes. This approach is understandable. Jamie Allan could be called a subsistence criminal; he does what he does to survive, not out of aspirations of becoming a kingpin.
But Pickard wisely embraces the lyrical to address what really matters: Jamie’s love for his woman, her eventual scorn for him, and his regret for a life ill-spent. Here is Allan at the endgame, reflecting on the imminent:
when death turns out the broom
we’ll all be swept, with nothing
but blossoms on the broom
That’s about as hard-boiled as it gets.—NBCC board member and San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon.
“Ballad of Jamie Allan” discussed on Harriet.
Prequel discussed on Harriet.