Folk Poem I: I Am A Fool

I am a fool
And I know why:
I was born under
A bronze, bronze sky
A mewling bird
Fell from its nest,
And died within
My mothers’ breast.

A warring girl
With bronze, bronze hair
Called to the wind
But none was there;
Spoke to the grave
With no reply
Then something gave
In her bronze, bronze eye.

O come with me
Who on the earth
Creep haltingly
Twixt death and birth
O come with me
All you who long
For more to be
Than fair and strong.

And you who crave
For other worlds
Beyond this world
And every world
We shall mourn sore
What death has sown
And stand up more
Than men have known.

Tune base: O Waly Waly (The Water Is Wide)

13 thoughts on “Folk Poem I: I Am A Fool

  1. I am not familiar with the tune, but you have some metrical irregularities and I’m wondering about them.

    Why did you do this:

    I was born under
    A bronze, bronze sky

    Why did you feel justified in lengthening that third line?

    Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood and we don’t end up debating the wrong thing–though it is perhaps unnecessary, I’ll say I’ve got nothing against metrical irregularities. I’m just wondering what effect you’re after.

    The other irregularity also comes with a preposition too.


  2. It’s true that spot can be sung to better effect than recited. I think the main effect I was searching for was to have words for this tune: it’s a very affecting melody that speaks of pain over what is lost, but the words I know are about how love always fails and I don’t really believe that nor have I experienced it.

    When you sing it, “under” in the line you cited creates a sort of bridge because you have to split the word up between the two lines – it makes you use a lot of sostenuto which heightens the feeling.

    However, “in her bronze bronze eye” is a little more disinegenuous even with the melody – you have to split a note into two notes to no effect, really. I think I put it in because it seemed silly to say bronze bronze twice, and then the last time I mention bronze, to only say it once. Perhaps I need a totally new line.

    I don’t think I know enough about poetical theory to debate with you about anything. (I’m largely an imitator.) Would you suggest any changes in particular?


  3. You’ll see you have to change more than a line if you try to change a word. My theory is that you should be able to explain or to be certain about everything in your poem–at least, that should be the ultimate goal. Not that you can reduce everything down to an explanation, but that no part is simply hanging there.

    This is how I would begin to revise, but remember I don’t know the tune:

    I am a fool
    And I know why:
    I was born when
    A bronze, bronze sky (and since the girl wars, why not a bronze, angry sky?)
    cast a dark bird
    out of its nest,
    to die within (I’d be tempted to lengthen this line.) to die a slow death
    My mothers’ breast. (I’d be tempted to lengthen this line.) in my mad mother’s breast

    What does that do for the singing, or your meaning? Too dark, perhaps?

    Who are you imitating anyway?


  4. It’s a good theory, simple yet all-encompassing.

    I like your suggested revision, without the parenthetical options (they aren’t singable and for my purposes they seem less than delicate.) I like that you’re adjusting the structure, not just the words.

    You may not be able to listen to it right now (earphones?) but if you want to get a sense of the tune, here’s a youtube that’s fairly decent.

    The only real problem is the ‘a’ in ‘a dark bird.’ An unstressed word doesn’t fit there. In fact the meter seems to be ‘ – – – when you take the tune into consideration. Here’s the traditional text and a newer one that’s often sung, if you’re interested.

    And yes, a bit too much darkness. I’m going more for strangeness or wildness. I thought perhaps this:

    I was born when
    A bronze, bronze, sky
    Cast some fey bird
    Out from its nest

    But it loses some of its sensory anchor with the loss of either “mewling” (aural) or “dark” (visual.) However the last two verses have hardly any sensory anchor at all. 😦

    I don’t know who I’m imitating. I meant to say that my technique is immature: my sense of what is good is informed as much by aural memory as by a fully conscious criteria. Until I read and think with more discipline about how it works, I suspect I won’t be able to analyze what I’m doing as fully as I’d like.

    How long does it take you to write a poem and put it up on your blog?


  5. I wondered if you’d be attached to mewling–its that kind of word. I think the assonance in the line of the dark bird spreads like a shadow, which is why I like it. You are probably right to ignore what you have of my suggestions. I’m no hand at lyric poetry and I’m trying to take the poem in other directions–besides, you probably can’t get the tune out of your head. Though the singer has an unfortunate voice!

    It takes all kinds of time. The longest poem I put took three days between the original impressions and the final thing. The poem that took the longest to write took months. I didn’t really start trying my hand at poetry till March and then what I have been doing most of the time is disciplining a piece of prose that seems more poetic. So I was reaching back to stuff I’d written in the Unexamined Life from last year. Now I have been growing the poems with additions made as I go, but at first it was just getting a feel for meter by sculpting the block of prose. I actually post very little of the poetry I’ve come up with as I have a feeling it is not generally read and still needs a lot of work.


  6. It may be a while before I put up a new finished version of this lyric, but I want to revise the thing all at once now that I have some new ideas.

    Interesting, your methods are very different from mine. I wrote poetry first.

    But I always enjoy the way your poems turn out because they strike me as bold-featured.


  7. Hello, there. I somehow wandered over here from Unk’s blog. I’ve also appreciated your comments over at remonstrans, so I thought I’d see what you had here.

    Anyway, it would seem like I’m in on the tail-end of a conversation (nothing new there, for me), but I was intrigued by the post. I noticed the tune base was The Water is Wide; ever since some acquaintances in Minneapolis identified the tune I had sung with different words, I’ve been curious as to the original lyrics. Thank you for those links. For what it’s worth, I first heard the melody in a song entitled “Psalm 42”, as sung by the 1982 Men of Faith men’s group. Since then, I’ve used the tune with the lyrics from “Amazing Grace” and from “In Christ Alone”.

    As for the writing experience, my tendency is to hear a tune first, and then fit the lyrics to the tune. Theologically speaking, that’s probably not the best idea.

    Anyway, enough rambling. Thanks for the post; I’m trying to learn how other writers approach poetry, also.


  8. Hi there, and welcome! I always enjoyed your blog. The good thing about internet conversations is that they can slumber for quite a while without actually being dead…

    Yes, I’ve had some highly informed people disapprove, with lofty logic, of some of my lyric-to-tune fittings, too. It seems to me that people too often approach music like a dead language instead of a living one – they can parse it to kingdom come but they don’t seem to let it speak to them. It’s part of our modernist way of thinking that we can only find meaning in words, in texts. So we assume that’s where all the theology is. But music is a language, too, and if we learn to speak it or at least to hear it I think we can find religious meaning in music as well as words.

    So, perhaps you have a sound reason for considering it theologically dangerous to be affected by a tune and then seek a lyric to fit it. I’m not so sure, myself.

    I can hear ‘Amazing Grace’ being rather affecting with ‘O Waly Waly.’ What I don’t like is hearing ‘O Sole Mio’ turned into ‘O How I Love Him’ by opera wannabes in the church. I’m not sure what the difference is exactly… perhaps I’m on the lookout for gimmicks. Maybe it’s just that the text to ‘Amazing Grace’ is strong and can hold its own even in the embrace of an enduring favorite like ‘O Waly Waly,’ while ‘O How I Love Him’ wouldn’t exist if not for the enduring popularity of ‘O Sole Mio’. I don’t like to see religious things leaning on secular things for their existance, as it seems to invalidate the whole deal. Hmm?

    Have you read Sidney Lanier’s ‘Marshes of Glynn?’ You could literally use it as a devotional. He studied the relationship between music and words and wrote ‘Marshes’ to sound like a symphony.


  9. No, I haven’t read ‘Marshes’. Thanks for the reference; I’ll take a look at it. Regarding ‘O Sole Mio’, it’s been so long since I heard ‘O How I Love Him’, that I had forgotten. But I agree with you regarding the tenuous endurance of ‘O How I Love Him’, and the greater principle of not leaning on the secular.


  10. A very nice discussion going on. I’m not exactly a musician or singer or even ever bothered to write a song other than entirely humorous ones… so I’m a little outmatched. Once again, nice discussion.


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