Poetry Mix Tape #8: Modern Minstrel

Sea shanties. Ballads. Serenades to Valerie Plame. A rock opera about changelings and wicked forest queens, complete with a murderous rake. Doomed Civil War lovers. Japanese folklore. Accordions and kettle drums and quirky intelligence. Diction to make a thesaurus swoon.

This is The Decemberists, one of my favorite bands, mostly due to the inventive and poetic lyrics of Colin Meloy. Today I want to share the lyrics to one of my favorite Decemberist songs “Red Right Ankle.” Read and enjoy, then we will discuss its poetry.

This is the story of your red, right ankle
And how it came to meet your leg
And how the muscle, bones, and sinews tangled
And how the skin was softly shed
And how it whispered, “Oh, adhere to me”
For we are bound by symmetry.
Whatever differences our lives have been,
we together make a limb.”
This is the story of your red, right ankle.
This is the story of your gypsy uncle
you never knew cause he was dead
And how his face was carved and ripped with wrinkles
in the picture in your head
And remember how you found the key
to his hideout in the Pyrenees
But you wanted to keep his secret safe
And so you threw the key away.
This is the story of your gypsy uncle.
This is the story of the boys who loved you,
Who love you now and loved you then
some were sweet and some were cold and snuffed you
and some just laid around in bed
And some, they crumbled you straight to your knees
Did it cruel, did it tenderly
Some they crawled their way into your heart
to rend your ventricles apart
This is the story of the boys who loved you
This is the story of your red, right ankle.


Beautiful song, yes. Lyric poem? Yes. Elements I love? First, the three, seemingly disparate topics of the verses work because they give a strange and intimate portrait of the “you” being addressed. The first stanza shows an intimate knowledge and interest in the body – the red, right ankle has been loved and studied so well that it has its own history. The second is anecdotal, a secret shared that reveals a key personality trait of the “you.” The third stanza implies that the speaker knows the full history of sorrows that the “you” has suffered and (to me, the hopeless romantic) implies that things will be different now. Some may argue that this is NOT a love song, but I believe it is, one of the most tender and original ones I have ever heard. The line “whatever differences our lives have been/we together make a limb” is a unique and fitting description for two people function as a dependent unit.

Second, the use of other poetic devices is the song are subtle and effective- the anaphora of “and how” in the first verse, the slant rhymes (uncle/wrinkle, safe/away) in the second, and the assonance in the third (then, tenderly, rend, ventricles) all show careful attention to sound other than end rhyme.

This is one of those songs where the lyrics themselves stand alone as a poem but come to a higher level of emotional impact when married to its music. If you want to write this week, try one of these ideas:

1. Write a poem to a specific body part of someone you know intimately.

2. Make up a story about your relatives that you have never met. What are their secrets? And would you keep them safe?

And then enjoy a live version of this amazing song.

10 thoughts on “Poetry Mix Tape #8: Modern Minstrel

  1. Ahhh! I love the Decemberists as well. 🙂 This one will be enjoyable, although I don’t know that it’s possible to do their style justice…

    Speaking of uncles and body parts, another one from their “July, July”:
    “And I’ll say your uncle was a crooked French Canadian,
    and he was gut-shot running gin.
    And how his guts were all suspended in his fingers,
    and how he held them, how he held them, held them in.”

    I don’t know how he does it.

    • Have you read the young adult fantasy he wrote and his wife illustrated? It’s called Wildwood – very inventive – he’s working on the sequel now! ( I have kind of a nerdy music crush on him, I must admit…)

      • I have not!

        Have you, in turn, listened to Joanna Newsom? If not, please do so at once. (I recommend, as I have just written on my blog, “Sawdust and Diamonds”, which should be find-able on YouTube.)

        And as I have also just written on my blog, Goldsleeves

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