Villanelle, by Barbara Marks

The Villanelle, a near impossible form to innovate, let alone master, consists of nineteen lines that are divided into five tercets and a quatrain. The form, born in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century, is pleasurable to recite, and done well, it skirts a line between predictable rhythms and surprising turns. There is a rhyme scheme. It is intense. Many will have heard Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” with its heavy refrain of “rage rage” and “the dying of the light.” You can easily find it on the Internet. You can hear Thomas read it. Can you imagine it being read any other way?

Equally well known, and difficult to imitate, is Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” The choice of the refrain line creates the theme and the rhyme scheme of the poem. As Maxine Kumin points out Bishop’s choice of “polysyllabic words master and disaster presses her into interesting, surprising yet apt rhymes: fluster; faster; last, or; vaster; gesture. These so-called feminine or Italianate endings entice the poet to reach farther afield for unexpected equivalents that will provide an emotional tension to balance the otherwise lighthearted chime of double rhymes…” (Finch Varnes 316).

Like “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” the Plath poem we read in class, the rhymes can seem obvious and one challenge is vary, embed, or otherwise complicate the choice of words and the way they sound out in the poem. Notice the first three tercets:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

PK Page choses the line “It is the stress that holds the structure up” to ignite her villanelle “The Castle.” The rhymes remain predictable end-rhymes but she does stretch them by the poems’ end, beginning with up/up all/wall keep/sleep recall/well, but adding tightrope and in the final quatrain “terminal.” (Insert)

David Trinidad chooses short sweet language that works well with the playfulness of the subject matter. Here’s the first three stanzas of “Chatty Cathy Villanelle,” which you can read and hear read over at Poetry Foundation.

When you grow up, what will you do?
Please come to my tea party.
I’m Chatty Cathy. Who are you?

Let’s take a trip to the zoo.
Tee-hee, tee-hee, tee-hee. You’re silly!
When you grow up, what will you do?

One plus one equals two.
It’s fun to learn your ABC’s.
I’m Chatty Cathy, who are you?

As I said, the poem is difficult to achieve let alone innovate. Be careful which lines you choose to repeat. Here’s a poem about how to write a villanelle. Here’s a villanelle by Ezra Pound.

Apparently Pound wrote, “The villanelle…can at its best achieve the closest intensity, I mean when…the refrains are an emotional fact, which the intellect, in the various gyrations of the poem, tries in vain and in vain to escape…” (I’m tracking the source here to be updated). Indeed. How does the latter qualify as a villanelle? How does the painting above qualify? Can you imagine a visual villanelle? What is its essence?