Sticking To Villanelles (For Today) – How To Write Them

A lot of things seem to be a bit stuck right now (at least to me) or moving in molasses motion, i.e. health care reform, opposition to Obama’s verbal waylaying of U.S. school children (ridiculous!), even the ever reliable Derek Jeter.   People running in the Democratic primary in New York are calling me every other minute, and I can’t rouse the energy to even listen to their messages.  (Not even the one from Ed Koch!)

Yesterday, I promised to continue to blog about villanelles, but frankly, this stuckness made the prospect about such an arcane, “out-of-the-loop” subject seem trivial.   Surely, I thought, there had to be something more exciting I could come up with.

Then, I walked home past Ground Zero—I live in downtown Manhattan—through all the barricades that are already set up in preparation for Friday, stepping between the policemen, already manning those barricades, past the cranes and lights and dirt pit, and, suddenly, blogging about something as possibly boring as how to write a villanelle really didn’t seem so terrible to me.

I also believe in keeping promises.

So:

How to Write a Villanelle:

The most important tip I can give to anyone writing any formal verse is to feel free to cheat.  For example, if rhyme is required, don’t worry about not being able to come up with perfect ones.  Use “almost rhymes” or “slant rhymes”  (that is, “not quite rhymes”).  Besides giving you more words to choose from, this will keep the poem from being so sing-songy.

If repeated lines are called for, as in the case of the villanelle, don’t worry if you have to vary them a bit, that is, if your repeating lines don’t in fact exactly repeat.   Remember that meaning always trumps form.

It’s helpful to think of the form as a kind of a map, a means to music.  It’s useful to have all the streets laid out, but occasionally, when you want your poem to actually reach a destination, you have to cut through some back yards.

The only place where I think cheating can truly backfire is with rhythm.  Your lines don’t have to scan exactly, but if they are really off, the poem just won’t sound well.  Respecting rhythm does not mean that you have to be stick to iambic pentameter, but some attention to line length, numbers of feet or syllables, should be paid.

All that said, you can’t cheat till you know the rules.  Here are the basics:

A villanelle is a seven stanza poem, that works with rhyme, meter and repeated lines.  There are two lines that repeat through the poem;  they also rhyme with each other.  For notation purposes, I call the first repeated line “A1″ (like the steak sauce) and the second repeated line “A2″ (not to be confused with the Pakistani mountain).   (Under rules of poetic notation, these are both referred to as “A” lines because they rhyme with each other, the “A” rhyme.)

Other lines which rhyme with A1 and A2, but which are not the repeated lines, are denoted below as just plain “A”.

The remaining lines of the poem, which do not rhyme with the A lines, but which rhyme with each other, are denoted as “B”.

Here’s the basic form:

A1
B
A2

A
B
A1

A
B
A2

A
B
A1

A
B
A2

A
B
A1
A2

An “easy” way to remember the form is that the all the stanzas. except the last one, have three lines.  The first one begins with your A1 line and ends with your A2 line;  the next four stanzas are in a kind of order with the first ending with A1, the second A2, the next A1, the next A2 again.  (It’s sort of like shampooing your hair—”wash, rinse, repeat.”)  The B lines intersect each stanza (sort of like a basting stitch.)

The last stanza has four lines, ending with a couplet made up of A1 and A2.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.  As mentioned in yesterday’s blog re Villanelles and Banana Pudding, the great thing about writing a Villanelle is that you really don’t need to come up with all that many lines.  You do need to think through your repeating lines though—to make sure that they are flexible, and also that they work as a couplet.

Ideally, you also want the meaning of the repeated lines to shift as the poem progresses, and not to simply repeat in a rote manner.  You do not want the repetition to feel formulaic, but somehow illuminating.

Punctuation can help here—it can be useful, for example, for the repeated lines to sometimes feed directly into the following line or stanza and not to always end with the pause of period or comma.

And of course,  cheating can be invaluable.  Shifting the words slightly, for example, so that the lines sound almost the same, but are a teensy bit different, can help your poem actually mean something.

If this is your first villanelle, pick relatively easy rhymes.  I also find it useful to list on a separate page, all the A rhymes and B rhymes that I can think of before I move on too far with poem.  I make the list in a completely dumb way, writing down every single rhyme or near rhyme I can come up with, without regard to the poem’s subject, simply to accumulate choices.  This sounds very “unheartfelt”, but such lists can really open up your thinking, helping you to come up with much more creative and meaningful combinations than you otherwise would.

Which brings up a final point.  Yes, the form is constraining, but the constraints force you out of your typical ruts.  To write a villanelle (or any formal poem), you have to work with something other than your normal brain patterns.   This seems, to me at least (Manic-D-Daily)  invaluable.)

Here’s another one of mine:

Burned Soldier (A Mask For Face)

He tried to smile but found that skin would balk;
a mask for face was not what he had planned.
Right action should give rise to right result,

saving the day as it called on God to halt
all burn and bite of bomb as if by wand;
he tried to smile but found that skin would balk.

When they talked of graft, he always thought of molt,
as if his flesh held feathers that could span
right action, then give rise to right result—

cheeks that were smooth but rough, but loose but taut—
it all had been so easy as a man.
He tried to smile but found that skin would balk.

Hate helped at times; to think it was their fault.
But how could “they” be numbered? Like grains of sand,
like actions that give rise to like result,

like eyes that fit in lids not white as salt.
This lead white face was not what he had planned.
He tried to smile but found that skin would balk;
right action should give rise to right result.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

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2 Comments on “Sticking To Villanelles (For Today) – How To Write Them”

  1. Reflections Says:

    What a great lesson on the villanelle. You have given the form’s pattern, but the additional notes seem invaluable beyond, making it so much more accessable. Thank you.

    As for the poem itself… deep painful images of those who give so much, never to consider what might be left after, so much we forget to thank them for.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Thanks for checking it out! I probably should have posted the two villanelles together, but feel so grateful to have people read one! Thanks again.


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