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Violet Nesdoly PhotoThe Villanelle:
Acoustic Chamber for Words
Copyright©2009 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our sixteenth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

For the next few columns Violet will focus on various forms of poetry. We are hoping to introduce our readers to some of the more interesting types of poetry, and are hoping that some readers will be prompted to experiment with them.

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.

Thus begins Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” one of the most memorable poems of our generation—and a villanelle. The Thomas poem, with its rhymes and refrains, is a great example of this musical and versatile French form.

This month we’ll take a close look at the villanelle. We’ll find out about its origins, analyze its makeup, and read a few villanelles by well-known poets. Then we’ll devise some strategies for writing our own. If you read last month’s column about the sound of poetry, composing a villanelle will give you a chance to put into practice some of the principles of sound we discussed there (the villanelle has been called “an acoustic chamber for words”1).

History

The modern villanelle evolved from 14th century Italian pastoral round-songs. The French poet Jean Passerat wrote the first recognizable villanelles in the 16th century. By the 19th century English poets were using the form to write cute and clever light verses that often referred to the form itself. Modern and contemporary poets have demonstrated its potential more fully by writing villanelles that range from humorous to haunting. The villanelle is the second most common form poem modern poets choose to write (beaten out only by the sonnet).

What is a villanelle?

The villanelle is a form poem, that is, it’s a poem written according to a blueprint or plan. Furthermore, within the family of form poems the villanelle is a fixed form because it always has the same number of lines—19. These are arranged as five stanzas of three lines (tercets) and a final stanza of four lines (quatrain).

The villanelle employs rhyme. It has two rhyme sounds which we’ll refer to as a, and A (the same sound), and b.

To complicate things, it also has two repeating lines (or refrains). The first repeating line initially appears as line 1 (A1) and repeats in lines 6, 12 and 18. The second repeating line appears first as line 3 (A2) and repeats in lines 9, 15 and 19 (the last line of the poem).

Here is the villanelle’s pattern:

St. 1 A1 (first repeating line or refrain)
  b
  A2 (second repeating line or refrain)

St. 2 a
  b
  A1 (repeat of line 1)

St. 3 a
  b
  A2 (repeat of line 3)

St. 4 a
  b
  A1 (repeat of line 1)

St. 5 a
  b
  A2 (repeat of line 3)

St. 6 a
  b
  A1 (repeat of line 1)
  A2 (repeat of line 3)


When working with the repeating lines, it is accepted practice—and most poets do—to change these slightly from one appearance to the next. The goal is to enlarge the meaning of the poem rather than precisely parrot back the words.

Villanelles have no set rhythm or line length but the lines are usually even. Iambic pentameter (te-TUM x 5) is a common rhythm for serious villanelles. The Thomas poem with which we began this article is written in iambic pentameter (do NOT go GENtle INto THAT good NIGHT). The trochee rhythm (TUM-te, BASket) also works well.

Eight to ten syllables per line is the most common length but shorter or longer lines are okay too. The main thing is to keep the rhythm regular.

For a light verse villanelle, anapest feet create a tripping rhythm ( te-te-TUM, ser-e-NADE). Or use dactyl feet for a marching or galloping effect (TUM-te-te, HAR-mo-ny).

Read some villanelles

Now let's take a break from reading about villanelles to reading some actual poems. Below are links to villanelles by well-known poets. They illustrate how the theory works in practice. You might want to read each poem several times.

On first reading:
      • Read for meaning and general effect.

On second and successive readings:
      • Note the repeating/refrain lines. Has the poet changed them? How do the changes affect poem's meaning.
      • Note line lengths and rhythm. What do those things communicate to you?

"Chatty Cathy Villanelle" by David Trinidad
"Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas
"During the Service" by Carrie Grabo
"In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn" by Donald Justice
"Lissadel" by Wendy Cope
"Subject to Change" by Marilyn Taylor

More villanelles here.

Write a Villanelle

Now that you are familiar with the rules of the form and have read a few, follow these steps to compose a villanelle of your own.

1. Choose a subject. Though any subject might do, there are some ideas which are better suited to the villanelle form than others. (W. H. Auden, when asked whether the form or content came first, replied, “At any given time, I have two things on my mind—a theme that interests me and a problem of verbal form. The theme looks for the right form; the form looks for the right theme. When the two come together, I am able to start writing.”2)

Some subjects or themes that lend themselves well to the villanelles are:
     • Duality, for example two differing points of view, or two unlike things or people forced together. The first villanelle I wrote was for a contest where the challenge was to write a poem about Christmas in a prison or care home. Note the duality: happy time, sad place.
     • Ironic subjects. Actor, writer and poetry aficionado Stephen Fry describes many villanelles as consisting of “a rueful, ironic reiteration of pain or fatalism.”3
     • Humorous subjects—especially those rooted in irony.

2. Write the two repeating or refrain lines.
This is the most important step of the villanelle-writing process and will largely determine the success of your poem. When composing the two repeating lines keep in mind:

     • The end words of the two lines rhyme. The sound on which they end will also be the ‘a’ rhyme sound in the non-repeating lines. Therefore choose end words with a rhyme sound that’s easy to match.
     • The lines should resonate with a meaning that has the potential to enlarge as the poem progresses.
     • The lines should be musical and pleasing to the ear.
     • Try beginning one or both refrain lines with a verb.
     • The two lines need to come together effectively at the end of the poem.

“Technically the trick of it seems to be to find a refrain pair that is capable of run-ons, ambiguity and ironic reversal” says Fry.4

3. Decide on your second rhyme sound ‘b’.
Again choose a sound that has lots of rhyme potential and that is different enough from rhyme ‘a’ to provide a pleasing contrast.

If you need some help finding rhymes, you can always use a free on-line rhyming dictionary for some help.

     • Rhymer
     • Rhymezone

4. Print out or write the villanelle form on a piece of paper and enter the repeating lines.

5. Make lists of words that rhyme
with the two sounds you have chosen (a, A and b). Use a rhyming dictionary if you need to.

6. Compose the additional lines of your poem according to the rhyme scheme, using ideas suggested by the words on your list.

7. Make subtle changes to the refrain lines as your poem takes shape. Make these changes to enhance and add meaning, not simply for the sake of variety. “The repetition cannot be static,” says Frances Mayes. “Each time a repeating line appears it should have added significance.”5

If this way of composing a poem seems contrived and non-poetic, be reassured that you’re not the first person to feel this way. Poet and teacher Michael Begeja tells students they need to plot their villanelles6 (and you thought only fiction writers did that). Fry observes, “Certain closed forms (and he includes the villanelle here) …seem demanding enough in their structures and patterning to require some of the qualities needed for Sodoku and crosswords.”7 But despite the seemingly unpoetic method of composing, villanelles often appear spontaneous. Strive for such an effect, even if it takes much crossing out, agonizing over, and rewriting lines to get exactly what you’re after.

Once you’re familiar with writing by-the-rules villanelles, you may be tempted to join poets who have written villanelles that break the rules. Some poets leave out or add stanzas, rhyme only some of the lines, or none at all, or even write in free verse. As John Drury says, “You can manipulate forms as much as you like, shortening or lengthening as long as the poem turns out well.”8

This month, try your hand at writing a villanelle. Suitable topics could be things about which you have mixed feelings—like Christmas or winter.

Coming December 1:
Be sure to return in December when we'll discuss some shorter poetry forms.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly


Endnotes:

[1] Philip Jason, quoted in Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Traveled (Hutchinson, London, 2005), 227.
[2] W. H. Auden, quoted in Margaret Ryan, How to Write A Poem (Grolier Publishing, New York, 1996), 113.
[3] Fry, 228.
[4] Fry, 229.
[5] Frances Mayes, The Discovery of Poetry (Harcourt Inc., New York, 2001), 301.
[6] Michael Bugeja, The Art and Craft of Poetry (Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1994), 293.
[7] Fry, p. 221.
[8] John Drury, Creating Poetry (Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati OH, 1991), 132.