Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Villanelle

Come tomorrow, I'll be posting an original villanelle here along with six of my poetry friends, the same crowd who worked on a crown of sonnets last year. I blame Liz Scanlon for finally making me tackle this form again - it's one that thwarted my prior efforts, which involved two that I never finished and one that I finished, but will never share because, well, it sucks. But I digress.

Today I thought maybe I'd post about what a villanelle is. It's a nineteen-line poetic form that relies on a specific end rhyme pattern and also requires you to reuse two lines of text. A lot.

History of the form

The form is a song-based form that entered the English language in the mid- to late 1800s, had a brief bit of popularity (usually written in iambic tetrameter at that time, although there is no particular required meter for villanelles), then faded into disuse for about 40 or so years until the 20th century, when it regained popularity with folks like Dylan Thomas, creator of perhaps the most famous of all villanelles, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, and later with Sylvia Plath in poems such as Mad Girl's Love Song, and still later with people like Theodore Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop, whose One Art is nearly as well-known as Thomas's poem. I'm also a big fan of Wendy Cope's Some Rules, which includes this closing couplet: "Stop, if the car is going 'clunk.'/Don't answer e-mails when you're drunk." Most (but not all) twentieth-century poets opted to write their villanelles in iambic pentameter, which is what I used in the one you'll see tomorrow, although other of my sister poets have used different meter here and there.

Discussion of the form

The villanelle uses two recurring lines and features six stanzas - 5 containing three lines each in a sandwich-like rhyme scheme (ABA) and the sixth having four lines (ABAA).

The first and third lines of the poem are used as the last two lines of the poem, plus each of them is used twice more in the middle of the poem as ending lines to three-line stanzas.

The first and third lines must rhyme.

The words that end the middle lines of the stanzas are supposed to rhyme with one another.

This results in a rhyme scheme of AbA' abA abA' abA abA' abAA', where A is the first line of the poem, A' is the third, a are lines that rhyme with the first and third lines, and B stands in for the middle lines, which all rhyme with one another.

Here are the first three stanzas of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, so you can see how this works in practice:

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.

In this example, "Do not go gentle into that good night" is A, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" is A', the first lines of the second and third stanzas get a designation of a and the middle lines ending in "day", "they" and "bay" all rhyme with one another, savvy?

The final stanza of Dylan Thomas's poem is as follows:

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.


See how the recurring lines are put together as the last two lines of the poem?

Advice on how to write a villanelle

This is one of those forms where repetition can quickly become tedious if you've chosen bad first and third lines, and also one of those forms where you have specific requirements to follow, so it's best to write the template down the side of the page, like so:


A
b
A'

a
b
A

a
b
A'

a
b
A

a
b
A'

a
b
A
A'


And then, it's best to fill in that closing couplet first. I'm not saying it's what Dylan Thomas did, since I don't know that for certain, but if he had, the first words written for his villanelle would have been "Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Once you've got your couplet down, fill in your template with all the As and A's, like so:


Do not go gentle into that good night,
b
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

a
b
Do not go gentle into that good night.

a
b
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

a
b
Do not go gentle into that good night.

a
b
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

a
b
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Once you've got that set, start filling in the blanks, being sure to use the relevant rhyme scheme. You should know, by the way, that some modern poets use slant rhyme and/or feel free to alter their repeating lines a bit by, say, using homophones (e.g., hear/here, red/read) or by replacing some of the words in the middle of the line. In One Art, for instance, Elizabeth Bishop alters her first line - "The art of losing isn't hard to master" - to "the art of losing's not too hard to master" in the final stanza. And her third line goes through these variations:

Stanza 1: "to be lost that their loss is no disaster."
Stanza 3: "to travel. None of these will bring disaster."
Stanza 5: "I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster."
Stanza 6: "though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The villanelle I'll be sharing tomorrow is nowhere near as fine as the ones I've provided links for you to view, but it is the first working villanelle I've written.

Peace out.

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