Saturday, May 31, 2008


British poet and filmmaker Tom Pickard was asked to write a libretto for an opera -- "The Ballad of Jamie Allan." The folk opera was commissioned by The Sage Gateshead and performed there, practically on top of the location of Jamie Allan's last crime. A gypsy whose career was notorious, beginning as a flamboyant lover and merry thief and ending in malice, jail, and death, Allan endured in Northumbrian histories, and even more so in the music of the pipes and fiddle, where tunes named for him recall his initial merry musicianship as well as the songs sung of his life of crime.

Pickard went on to issue a book of poetry in late 2007, BALLAD OF JAMIE ALLAN, that become a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. It's not esoteric, or confessional; it can be read with pleasure and then fascination by even someone not familiar with issues of form and line; and yet it's a bundle of forms and approaches to both the gypsy and the ballad -- as well as many other shapes and notions of poetry. I spent a week enjoying it.

they said no jail could hold me
at the age of twenty-five
but now I am past seventy
and chained up to my lies…

The snippets vary from page to page, as eyewitness accounts, Jamie's own voice, and dark wondrous portraits of the wild north country. I'll read it again for enjoyment of the way it approaches, dances back, twists, angles. It might be a film in poetry form, complete with close-ups and wide shots. And I love best the bits from the voices of the women on the scene. Here's the opening of "Annie Bennett, Her Information":

The sound of deep waters sang in my sleep
so I followed the stream to search for a thief.
I followed a dark stream that ran underground;
by the sound of deep waters my lover was found.

For an extra touch of wonder, check out the blog for the folk opera at

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