History	
  
	
  
The	
  modern	
  villanelle	
  evolved	
  from	
  14th	
  century	
  Italian	
  pastoral	
  round-­‐songs...
When	
  working	
  with	
  the	
  repeating	
  lines,	
  it	
  is	
  accepted	
  practice—and	
  most	
  poets	
  
do—to	
...
1.	
  Choose	
  a	
  subject.	
  Though	
  any	
  subject	
  might	
  do,	
  there	
  are	
  some	
  ideas	
  which	
  are...
5.	
  Make	
  lists	
  of	
  words	
  that	
  rhyme	
  with	
  the	
  two	
  sounds	
  you	
  have	
  chosen	
  (a,	
  A	
...
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How to write a villanelle

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How to write a villanelle

  1. 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)    
  2. 2. 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.     <strong>Write  a  Villanelle</strong>     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.    
  3. 3. 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.     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.    
  4. 4. 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.  Try  your  hand  at  writing  a  villanelle.  Suitable  topics  could  be  things  about  which   you  have  mixed  feelings—like  Christmas  or  winter.  

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