One wishes that Joseph C. Pagan had chosen a more appropriate title than The Treasury of American Folk Poetry for this collection. Picking this off a shelf, prospective readers would understandably be expecting a survey of treasured and time-honored ballads, lyrics and songs from a variety of writers, regions and eras of the American experience.
What Pagan offers instead is a collection of his own poetry, with its unique takes on the traditional folk lyric. This kind of writing requires a ready wit, a way with words that manages to reinvigorate traditional folk song themes of hard luck, hard living and heartache with fresh touches and a graceful sense of rhyme and rhythm.
It’s hard not to smile when you come across this from Pagan’s ”Sweet and Sour”: “Some are sweet and some are sour / That’s the power of the hour…/ Come along we’ll thank the Lord, / Better yet we’ll use the Ford!” These lines have the lilt and lift of a pretty good Country & Western song — the surprise of the Lord/Ford rhyme adds just the right amount of salty humor to the work.
Pagan notes in his back jacket copy that he has “composed music for most” of the lyrics here, and that actually points to the main weakness with this collection. As words on paper, far too many of these pieces are cliched, maudlin and awkward. It’s possible – though far from assured – that a good melody, strong hook and affecting voice might help lines like: “When she was hot with fire; / I knew I could not early retire!” Or: “You love how I move; / It’s a wild groove / You know rock-n-roll rules!”
The good poems here, such as “Sweet and Sour,” carry a melody in their rhythms and rhymes and make a kind of song in the reader’s ear. That’s the effect Pagan needs to work harder at creating for his reader overall.
Also available as an ebook.