Ballade for Trains

They are no more, the whistles’ longing wails,
Retreating like a stately, mournful queen.
Where are the smokestacks that left fading trails,
The blackened engine with its oiled sheen,
Imposing in its tons, unfazed, serene,
The ties in creosote, the polished rails?
I hear their bell, and there’s a death to keen.
What lasts if such tremendous power fails?

Where will we find the heavy giant’s gales
Set blowing by that massive, blunt machine?
Where are the farm boys with their silent hails,
At which the engineer will smile and lean
And wave with the importance of a dean?
Find me the cattle, timber, kegs, hay bales,
Secure and fixed, however they careen.
What can remain when such huge power fails?

And where, behind the windows and sheer veils,
Are those who dine on brook trout amandine,
On caviar, champagne and roasted quails?
Do none now bathe and dress and preen
Before they enter on the daily scene
Like those who watched the passing crags and vales,
The scree dark red, the prairies’ varied green?
No car or plane can last when trains will fail.

I never would discredit or demean
Our social conscience and foreboding tales,
But cars are skits—old trains were pure Racine.
Who will remember us if such grace fails?


Love is Not Paint or Stone

When I see oleander shrubs in bloom,
those lovely hedges blossomed overmuch,
their commonness evoking critics’ doom,
I leave aside those onions of the Dutch.
Why would I spend my lifelong cache for one
when I might have a thousand pennyeach,
a pound of brass to purchase me a ton,
or none by chance for all my eye may reach?

So when I haunt museums for a week,
I hunger for a moving, blushing cheek.
Give me the child, the matron or the man;
I am the common lifeling’s foremost fan.
Enough of striving to catch beauty’s breath;
I would catch sight of one before its death.


Letter to Metellus

You write, good friend, that my production’s small,
And ask if I am lacking oak tree gall,
Or if papyrus does not reach my farm.
My output need not cause you such alarm.
Its meagre volume stems from having shied
Away from competition with the tide
Of elegant decantings and trim feats
That charm mammalians in the cluttered streets.
With public education’s burst of light,
Blake’s chimney sweep can manage now to write
A free-verse recitation that offends
Alike his troops of enemies and friends;
And she who lived alone in Wordsworth’s wild
Declaims her molestations as a child.
With such adepts, the rushing fool competes;
I’m daunted merely by the odes of Keats.
If actuaries practice well their trade,
Eight years remain to me before I’m laid
As out of sight as I was out of mind
To think the Deity himself assigned
The gift of language as my one true skill,
Not time enough to learn to write good swill.
And so I leave this as my final will:
That fires be laid with all my verse and prose,
That lazy beggars take my needless clothes,
That all my tools be given my good son
Along with every book and knife and gun,
That God and wife forget when they forgive,
And you, good friend, who scarcely knew me, thrive
As blissfully as when I was alive.


John J. Brugaletta is a poet living in McKinleyville, California. He is a retired professor of English at California State University, Fullerton, where he taught the writing of poetry among other subjects. He was publisher and editor of South Coast Poetry Journal for about ten years.

These poems are among the entries for the Society of Classical Poets’ 2012 Poetry Competition.

Featured Painting: “Steam Train” by Howard Fogg.

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9 Responses

  1. Poetry E Train

    Love this poem, strong and spirited… The Poet Julie Catherine Vigna found the poem, and posted link on my wall… Thank you, much appreciated, and if you are on facebook, let’s connect…

  2. Julie Catherine Vigna

    Wonderful poems, John – I’ve given the link to this page to a friend of mine who has a passion for trains; I think he will really appreciate reading your ‘Ballade for Trains’! ~ Julie

  3. Mary Williams

    I thought the Ballade for Trains was magnificently regal and slow; just right in fact, esp. ‘stately, mournful queen’, which fits exactly. The refrain is powerful, elegaic and completes each stanza in a different way. The rhymes are clever and unobtrusive, all in all a very accomplished poem. Thank you for giving it to us.

  4. Mary Williams

    Letter to Metellus. I loved this. One word jarred a little – mammalians- but I’m stuck for an alternative. The gift of language is certainly yours.

  5. Sally

    What a wonderful ballade. Beautifully done. One small query – do they not traditionally end with an address to a “Prince”? A pleasure to read your work.

  6. John J. Brugaletta

    Thank you, Sally. As to the prince in the envoy: Francois Villon had an actual prince and framed his ballades so that he could easily address that prince in the envoy. But Chaucer, having addressed the main part of his ballade to his purse, had no means of using the repeat line in his envoy, so the form seems somewhat malleable. In our day, we have a definite shortage of princes, especially those who could mandate an answer to our request, so I feel that part of the formula (if that’s what it is) would only seem outdated, artificial, and forced. In any case, Lewis Turco, whom I respect in such matters, makes no mention of the envoy-prince in his New Book of Forms.

    • Sally

      Thanks, and sorry I took so long to reply. I have now worked out how to do so. Thanks for sharing thoughts on this. All makes perfect sense. Thank you. I learned something new.

  7. Lew Icarus Bede

    On Ballade for Trains by John J Brugaletta

    All poetry is flawed; much in the same way as no science or mathematical insight is perfect; but amidst all the human rubble, one can find diamonds—some small and unrefined, yet still exquisite. One such fairly polished stone is Brugaletta’s Ballade for Trains.

    Its structure is three eight-lined stanzas with a final four-lined stanza. Its rhyme scheme is ababbaba for the first three stanzas, and abab, for the final. Its form neatly fits the topic, which is the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of trains, with the rhymes in the poem going forward and falling back. The question “What can remain when such huge power fails?” only used in the first two stanzas, is an excellent, albeit imperfect, refrain choice. Brugaletta’s meter, the iambic pentameter, is nearly flawless;
    and as such it is an agreeable rarety not only in our era.

    Brugaletta’s handling of poetic elements, at times, is excellent as well. He begins with vivid figurative language, the simile, “Retreating like a stately, mournful queen,” the metaphor, “the smokestacks that left fading trails,” and description, “The blackened engine with its oiled sheen.” For me line 7 flounders, but perhaps the author can address that.

    In the second stanza, his series of questions continues. Note the neat alliteration of “Where will we find the heavy giant’s gales/ Set blowing by that massive, blunt machine?” His farm boys here, more innocent than Sandburg’s in Chicago, have a refreshing, unassuming naiveté about them; but even his wealthy passengers of the third main stanza are painted with loving details.

    The final envoi, if such it is, because it develops the train-car contrast, though not without flaws of its own, contains Bragatella’s masterstroke, “But cars are skits—old trains were pure Racine.”

    Although many poets have written about aspects of the train, from Henry Thoreau to Claude McKay to myself, Emily Dickinson’s quaint lyric remains my favorite.

    I like to see it lap the Miles—
    And lick the Valleys up—
    And stop to feed itself at Tanks—
    And then—prodigious step

    Around a Pile of Mountains—
    And supercilious peer
    In Shanties—by the sides of Roads—
    And then a Quarry pare

    To fit its Ribs
    And crawl between,
    Complaining all the while
    In horrid—hooting stanza—
    Then chase itself down Hill—

    And neigh like Boanerges—
    Then—punctual as a Star
    Stop—docile and omnipotent
    At its own stable door—


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