In preparation for the upcoming Midwest Writer’s Workshop, at which I will be privileged to get to work with poet, Kathleen Rooney, I was assigned an article to read on the villanelle form that we will be discussing. I’ve attempted villanelles before with less than satisfying results. The villanelle has sometimes felt like an elaborate word game to me with its strict rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter rhythm typical of many of the late 19th and early 20th Century specimens. I struggle as a young (though not in years) poet, to keep the poem from sounding contrived. In fact, many well-known poets have written beautiful and memorable poems in the form. Here are some examples of some of the best known villanelles: Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas, The Waking by Theodore Roethke, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath, One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, and If I Could Tell You by W.H. Auden. There are more samples from contemporary American poets on the Poetry Foundation’s Website.
In answer to a question regarding what the villanelle does that other forms do not, in the book, The Making of a Poem, Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, say,
Perhaps the single feature of the villanelle that twentieth-century poets most made their own is the absence of narrative possibility. Figural development is possible in a villanelle. But the form refuses to tell a story. It circles around and around, refusing to go forward in any kind of linear development, and so suggesting at the deepest level, powerful recurrences of mood and emotion and memory.
Unlike most other rhymed poems, where the sound of single syllables is repeated once or twice, the villanelle repeats one sound thirteen times and another six times. And two entire lines are each repeated four times. It is this last feature that sets the form aside from other poems. The villanelle cannot really establish a conversational tone. It leans toward song, toward lyric poetry. And while the subject of most lyric poems is loss, the formal properties of the villanelle address the idea of loss directly.
After reading this, I began to change the way I thought about villanelles. The argument that the form encourages “figural development” and “refuses to tell a story,” and that it leans toward lyric poetry, is compelling. What this is saying is that the strict structure of the villanelle, specifically the repeating lines, not only defines its physical form, it also informs and guides its content while many other forms do not.
Strand and Boland go on to say,
Its repeated lines, the circularity of its stanza, become, as the reader listens, a repudiation of forward motion, of temporality and therefore, finally, of dissolution. Each stanza of a villanelle, with it refrains, becomes a series of retrievals.
I didn’t start out trying to conjure up a mood, emotion, or memory when I wrote my draft; but, as suggested by Strand and Boland, the form lends itself to that, and as such led me in my poem, to recall a trip in 2011 when, my husband and I traveled with friends through the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. It is the constant retrieval of my defining images– the fiddlehead fern and the eagle–in the mossy dreamland of the Hoh National Rain Forest that repudiates time in this ethereal place.
You can see the words by clicking here. Below is a video I made of the poem and pictures from the trip.
© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis