Writing in Form: The Villanelle

In the fall of 2015, I took my first poetry class. The class was cross-listed for undergrad and graduate students, and it focused on poetry forms. I had limited form experience before this class: in sixth grade, I wrote some haiku, in 10th grade, I wrote limericks, and I had read various sonnets, mostly Shakespearian. Writing in form provides an interesting challenge. And my professor, Christine Stewart, made it fun because she encouraged us to work within the form, but if the poem evolved beyond the form, that was fine. I learned a lot about the value of drafts leading to the next and the next in that class. One of the forms that I enjoyed most was the villanelle.

Villanelles incorporate repetition and rhyme to create a kind of cyclical reading experience. The poem comes back and back again to the first and third lines. I learned that when I wrote repetition in poetry, with each repeating line, the meaning should change for readers; they don’t want to just read the same thing repeatedly. But when poets craft the lines in an order that revolves around an idea but also introduces new information, it can be quite thrilling. The Villanelle form also maintains a rhyme scheme. Here’s the pattern: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2, A1 and A2 indicate the two refrain lines, and the lowercase letters indicate the rhyme.

Here’s an example from the Fall 2016 issue of Pasque Petals:

By Barbara Duffy

My husband lost his job today.
The future is a badger trap
or prey that chews its leg away

to stagger bloody, three stumped, sway
into an endless forest’s damp.
My husband lost his job today

which might seem right, in its own way,
The Fates’ appraised, thread-spun claptrap.
We pray. We chew our legs away

like German Shepherds chained for days
their fur sore-worn beneath the strap.
My husband was laid off today

because he worked from home, they say,
and I believe them, though I’m crap
at praying. We chew legs away

from chicken thighs, the cheaper way
beans and rice, rice and beans—that pap.
My husband lost his job today.
We’re prey, our legs chewed half away.

When I read this poem for the first time, I immediately read it three more times. I was shocked by the twists in the original two lines that showed the sensation of losing a job as something that makes us turn to the heavens, something that makes us eat away at ourselves, questioning the reasons. The animal imagery here also surprised me because the speaker uses German shepherds, badgers, to lead up to the speaker and her husband themselves becoming prey. This turn from praying, an attempt to control the uncontrollable to prey, getting eaten up by corporate America fascinates me. The rhyme scheme is so measured and the subject matter is so crushing. This relationship is one of the beauties with poetry: we can take experience that is scattered, disorganized, and organize it into lines and rhymes.

In An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, Maxine Kumin writes a chapter titled: “Gymnastics: The Villanelle.” She discusses ways that the form has evolved, originating in Italy during the Renaissance and moving to France and, eventually the United States. She provides some examples of villanelles including “The House on the Hill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Theocritus: A Villanelle” by Oscar Wilde, and “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Kumin ends the essay with a call to think about the form in creative ways: “It’s my thesis that we don’t need to ossify these ancient French forms by slavish imitation. We can enliven and enhance them with our own approximations. By resorting to the ingenuities of our own time and place, American poets in the last fifty years have turned a stultifying and restrictive form into an elastic, even gymnastic one. Perhaps in the twenty-first century others will remake the villanelle in ways as yet unthought of” (316).

I will leave you with this: try this form if you’ve never tried it before and have some fun with it. Consider pieces you are already working on that could use some structure or they keep coming back to an idea or two. Consider lines that you have been turning over in your head that haven’t quite fit anywhere yet and try placing them in a villanelle; you might discover you quite like gymnastics on the page.


Featured image taken by perloroques under the creative commons license on Flickr.

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