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

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!