On Poetry – Part 3: The Villanelle – what is it, and what’s so good about it?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, in just under three days time, I will be partaking in the Poetry Writing Month challenge, in which I write 30 poems in 30 days. Some awesome people have already agreed to participate in this as well, which is quite exciting, and I am looking forward to the challenge immensely.

As part of this challenge, I am going to write a few blogs about different poetic forms, trying to focus on some of the lesser known, but perhaps more enjoyable, forms. I will outline the rules for each one, show examples, and explain what it is I personally like about it, as well.

Perhaps my favourite form is the villanelle. This form includes a lot of repetition to enforce a somewhat circular structure, not allowing any linear progression of narrative, but instead bringing the focus back around to the same thoughts and emotions, and really honing in on these, adding to their power and poignancy. It is relatively easy to get the hang of, and despite being a four hundred year old form, it has seen a great rebirth in the last century, due to its almost song-like qualities (indeed, when it first appear centuries ago, it was likely to have been sung like a song).

The basics of it are as follows. A villanelle consists of 19 lines, broken into five stanzas of 3 lines each, and ending on a final stanza of four lines. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, while the last line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, and these two repeated lines then both reappear to make the last two lines of the final stanza. As a result, the whole poem falls into an aba rhyme scheme, with one sound being repeated thirteen times and the other six times. More importantly, once you’ve written the first stanza, you’ve also written the last lines of every other stanza, and so you just have to go back and fill in the blanks, so to speak – the circular structure has already been created.

Before going into any more detail, I think now is a good time for a couple of examples. In the first poem, some of the repeated lines are tweaked a little – this is alright as long as it is roughly the same as the line it should be repeating. In the other poem the lines are repeated with precision.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practise losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight,
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Hopefully by reading through these two poems, you can see how this form works, how the repetition of the lines and the tight rhyming pattern keep a circular, musical feel to the villanelle. Hopefully you can see that this form isn’t restrictive – rather it is like a guide, to help steer thoughts and feelings in a particular way, while putting them down on the page. Hopefully these two poems, both from the twentieth century I might add, can demonstrate the different ways you can follow the rules of this form too – one follows it loosely, the other much more rigidly, yet both are powerful in their individual ways.

Since discovering this form, thanks to the book The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, I have written maybe a dozen villanelles myself, and have utterly enjoyed writing them. No doubt I’ll write a few more over April, as well.

If you have never tried writing a villanelle before, have a go at writing one. You’ll be surprised how enjoyable it is, even if you’re not overly keen on writing or reading poetry. And if you do write one, I would love to read it, or even just hear about your experiences of attempting to write a villanelle, which can be as exciting as the final product itself.

Happy writing!

24 thoughts on “On Poetry – Part 3: The Villanelle – what is it, and what’s so good about it?

  1. I remember doing villanelles in college–The Making of a Poem was actually our textbook. I’m not usually one for structure or rhyming in poetry, but like you I found the villanelle to actually be very easy and a lot of fun.

    This 30 Poems in 30 Days challenge sounds fun! Perhaps I will join in.

    • That is pretty cool you used that book for your textbook! We used it for our textbook for a couple of courses at university as well. 🙂
      Glad to find somebody else who agrees about the villanelle. I have always wanted to master the sestina, too, but it’s so hard to make it work. Maybe next month I’ll rise to that challenge…
      And that would be awesome if you do join in on the 30 Poems challenge, let me know if you do! 🙂
      By the way, I noticed you’re a bit of a Hunger Games fan?! Very cool though (both the books, and your love of them). I have only just read it recently and feel like I’ve been missing out a long time. 😛

      • Oh, the sestina! I used Aristotle’s six elements of drama for my six words the first and only time I’ve written a sestina. It was difficult but rewarding, and actually turned out pretty well.

        I’ve officially submitted my website to the participant’s list, so I’m in now, officially.

        I am definitely a Hunger Games fan, haha. I put the books off for a long time because I knew nothing about them except that they were popular, and since the Twilight incident I’m wary of popular teen novels. I was pleasantly surprised with the Hunger Games and am now an avowed fan. I’m glad you’ve discovered them!

        • Oh wow, that is a clever way of approaching the sestina! And by clever I mean quite genius, actually! 😀 I think that’s where I’ve struggled, trying to pick out six words that can drive the poem forwards!
          Hooray, that’s awesome you’re participating!
          I think a lot of people avoid or have avoided the Hunger Games phenomenon because of the Twilight abomination. Slowly I think people are realising that actually it’s a dystopian series and completely unlike a lot of the recent fads. I actually just never got around to reading it, really, but with the movie being released I figured it was time. I’m glad to have discovered it to, now waiting for the second and third books to arrive in the mail… 🙂

          • Yeah, it really helped. Maybe this month I’ll try one where I just use random words and see how I do! Or maybe I’ll “cheat” again and tweak the form by using seven words and choosing the deadly sins or the heavenly virtues. Ooh! We should both do one like that. One of us can do the sins and the other the virtues.

            I was lucky with the movie release. I just started a book club that reads books that have been made into movies and does a compare/contrast. It was timed perfectly to read the Hunger Games and go see the movie. But yeah, the book is definitely gripping. I picked it up for pittance when Borders went out of business and was only halfway through before I ordered the next two on Amazon.

            • Ooh, that could be fun, doing the sins and virtues! Except…how would you tweak it to accommodate seven words? But otherwise, that could be a fun idea. 🙂
              Ahhh, that is a cool idea for a book club. Very clever.
              I sadly didn’t get much from Borders when they went out of business. A couple of random books, and one of those Penguin Classics mugs, a mug of The Great Gatsby. I found even when Borders was super cheap trying to get rid of all their stock, it was still cheaper to buy books online and have them mailed to me…a little sad I suppose. Oh well.

              • Eh, just add another line and another stanza? It’s been three or four years since I wrote a sestina so I’m foggy on the “rules.”

                Again, I got lucky. I was able to pick up a couple of books I was missing from incomplete series and such.

                • Oh yeah, that would work. Very clever. I hadn’t thought of that hahaha. Alright, well I’m up for doing one of those two sestinas then! I’ll let you pick which one you want to do! 🙂

  2. I usually write just whatever pops into my head and let the piece form itself as it goes, but it is nice to read your entries about form and be reminded of the many ways to craft a poem, in order to challenge myself to expand and use literary tools to shape images. Like!

    • That’s what I figure with it! 🙂 I do often write free form poetry as well, but it’s nice to challenge myself with the other forms, and also just to shake it up and add a bit of variety I guess!

  3. I have read villanelles before but did not know the name of the form. I think Robert Munsch uses this form in a lot of his children’s stories. (Have you heard of him, down-under?) There is a lot of repetition and his humour is hilarious! The illustrations are, too!

    I like the Dylan Thomas poem. That’s kind of my friend’s and my outlook on life as we get older. We will not go gentle into that good night! We’re fighting the aging process tooth and nail! Well, our mind’s are. The bodies, not so much! 🙂

    • Ah, I have heard of Robert Munsch, not entirely sure if I have read anything by him though but he sounds like somebody I will need to suss out! I’ll look into it for sure – I always enjoy humour in poetry, because it’s quite hard to master.
      I really like the Dylan Thomas poem too, I always have seen I first read it years ago. It’s very powerful and tinged with quite a lot of emotion, and likewise I think (although I am still relatively young) it will become my outlook on life as I become older. 🙂

      • I read a lot of Robert Munsch’s books to my kids. There is only one that consistently makes me cry, though – ‘Love You Forever’. I tear up just reading the title! (But I’m just an old softy!) All his others are a lot of fun! My particular favourite is ‘Mud Puddle’. 🙂

        • Haha, Mud Puddle just sounds fun already. Thanks for the tip, I will definitely look into him, even if I can’t find him here I can always order it online (I order most of my books from the UK anyway). 🙂

  4. I love that poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night! It really is beautiful, though yet sad. This 30 day challenge sounds like fun.. I’m thinking of joining it.. hmmm 😛

    • It is a gorgeous poem that one, definitely one of my all time favourites I think. 🙂
      You should totally do this 30 day challenge with us, it will be a lot of fun I think! More fun with more people, such as yourself! (hint, hint). 😛

  5. Pingback: On Poetry – Part 5: Comic Verse – The Limerick, The Cento, and The Clerihew | wantoncreation

  6. If “30 Poems in 30 days” is really a competition then I already won.

    I made 31 in 7 days. Between last week and this week.

  7. Pingback: A new villanelle and the end of NaPoWriMo | Wanton Creation

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