Poem Geek


The Heroes of Villanelles

Hey, poem geeks!  Today we’re looking at the Villanelle, which is a closed form of poetry. A closed form of poetry is that kind which must hold to certain rules, while an open form is the kind that finds it’s identity in themes rather than structures.  We’re not going to delve too deep into the waters of prosody on this site because, frankly, it’s boring. We’d rather read poetry and gossip about the boozing habits of dead Irish writers! So let’s discuss in brief what the Villanelle is but for anything beyond that, you iambic pentamanerds are going to have to look else where!

The Villanelle is an old French form that consists of 5 tercets followed by a quatrain. The poem contains two rhyme sounds throughout and two alternating refrains. The structure looks like this:  

[1a, b, 2a] [a, b, 1a] [a, b, 2a ] [a, b, 1a] [a, b, 2a] [a, b, 1a, 2a]

The stanzas are in brackets with lines separated by commas. Letters indicate rhyme sounds and numbers represent refrains.

That wasn’t so bad. Here’s a Villanelle in action by the great W. H. Auden:

Villanelle by W. H. Auden

Time can say nothing but I told you so, 
Time only knows the price we have to pay; 
If I could tell you, I would let you know. 

If we should weep when clowns put on their show, 
If we should stumble when musicians play, 
Time can say nothing but I told you so. 

There are no fortunes to be told, although 
Because I love you more than I can say, 
If I could tell you, I would let you know. 

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow, 
There must be reasons why the leaves decay; 
Time can say nothing but I told you so. 

Perhaps the roses really want to grow, 
The vision seriously intends to stay; 
If I could tell you, I would let you know. 

Suppose the lions all get up and go, 
And all the brooks and soldiers run away? 
Time can say nothing but I told you so. 
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

 

When it comes to the Villanelle there are no neautral feelings. It is either loathed or adored by poets depending on their point of view. To advocates of formalism it is the symbol of everything they love. For antiformalist it is the epitome of verse at it’s most rediculous and suffocating. The Villanelle has been falsely attributed to the french troubadors of the 13th century, but the first one was actually written by the renaissance poet Jean Passat about a partridge (my guess is Keith). It’s poularity has waxed and waned with the times. 

This poem demonstrates how the refrain can be used to the poet’s advantage. This is a poem about change that is incapable of changing:

Villanelle of Change by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Since Persia fell at Marathon,
The yellow years have gathered fast: 
Long centuries have come and gone. 

And yet (they say) the place will don
A phantom fury of the past, 
Since Persia fell at Marathon; 

And as of old, when Helicon
Trembled and swayed with rapture vast
(Long centuries have come and gone), 

This ancient plain, when night comes on, 
Shakes to a ghostly battle-blast, 
Since Persia fell at Marathon. 

But into soundless Acheron
The glory of Greek shame was cast: 
Long centuries have come and gone, 

The suns of Hellas have all shone, 
The first has fallen to the last:— 
Since Persia fell at Marathon, 
Long centuries have come and gone.

This Villanelle has enjoyed some popularity since Leonard Cohen put it to music in one of his later albums. Here we have the form being used for the purpose of social commentary. I wrestled with playing the Cohen version in the outro but like most of his music, it’s 20 minutes long and it sounds like it’s being read by your stalker. So enjoy the creep free version: 

Villanelle For Our Time by Frank Scott

From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.

This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.

We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.

The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.

Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.

Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

This is my favorite from a poetry professor and editor at Columbia in Chicago. It’s silly, profound, and I wish I’d thought of it!

Chatty Cathy Villanelle by David Trinidad

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 ABCs.
I’m Chatty Cathy. Who are you?

Please help me tie my shoe.
Can you come out and play with me?
When you grow up, what will you do?

The rooster says cock-a-doodle-doo.
Please read me a bedtime story.
I’m Chatty Cathy. Who are you?

Our flag is red, white and blue.
Let’s makebelieve you’re Mommy.
When you grow up, what will you do?
I’m Chatty Cathy. Who are you?

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Bishop never achieved great popular fame but she has a reputation for being “the poet’s poet”. This poem is the one the old man is teaching Cameron Diaz to read in In Her Shoes, a movie my wife absolutely loved but I felt the only thing that would have justified it being any longer was a Hobbit or an iceberg.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

So you’ve probrably already guessed the challenge: write your own Villanelle.  Of course I didn’t forget the Villanelle, the one that leaves them all in the dust. Dylan Thomas will take us out! Better far than praise of men, ’tis to it with book and pen!

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

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