Like most poetry built on refrains, the villanelle steers away from narrative ideals, away from conversation and linear exchange. Instead, the villanelle circles, like carrion fowl. And like the buzzard, no one really likes the villanelle. (Go ahead, gasp.) They aren’t fun to write; they aren’t exactly lucid morsels to inhale, unless you’re reading Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, or some other dead poet.
There’s a reason only a handful of villanelles are actually famous, and even so, few of those keep to the strict form like Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”: The villanelle is, perhaps universally, the most difficult form of poetry.
You write the first line, and you’re stuck with it until the end. You pick up momentum, but then that third line keeps popping up, too, like Presidential debates.
By the time you reach the second stanza, you might be wondering if the endeavor is worth continuing.
Something you’ll notice about Elizabeth Bishop, in “One Art,” and Dylan Thomas, in “Do not go gentle…,” is the imperative. Each poem reads as instructions, commands, with an understood you. When a line omits its subject, it becomes versatile, mutable, easier for the poet to work with.
Notice it most as Thomas develops a litany of wise men, good men, wild men, et al. who “rage against the dying of the light,” who “do not go gentle into that good night.” While the poem is presumably a plea to his father in the face of death—the understood you of the first stanza—the refrain lines act as predicates to simple, declarative sentences in subsequent stanzas, elaborating on the hall of fame with whom Thomas, the elder, might soon enter cahoots.
While Thomas and Bishop, along with Auden, Roethke, and others, take more somber tones to their villanelles (as have I in the past, with “Sunday Morning Bread” and “Prayers for Friends”) I’ve always thought the strict repetition of lines created something of a Gong Show within the poem. An idea is begun, only to have another supersede it. Just when we gain a new rhythm, the first returns to center-stage with the self-importance of a five-year-old. The second returns soon enough, like the first, and when there is an understood you, you cannot help but play along.
The two lines come and go, chasing one another (and you) through the poem until they’ve twined themselves into a couplet at the end. Given that premise, my recent viewings of Cabaret and The Muppets, and the irresistible fusion of the words in question, inspiration has driven composition of this—my VaudeVillanelle:
Kick and dance onto the stage—
as the piano man bangs a ditty—
rush behind the theater drapes
Do you enjoy the wild old cabaret?
Do you like how the young ladies
kick and dance onto the stage?
But don’t blush or try saving face
while you watch our brand of comedy
rush behind the theater drapes
because champing right at its tail
a new bit or gag, and something witty
kick and dance onto the stage.
Lacing dialog in the one-act play
the satire will get a mite snippy,
rush behind the theater drapes,
and tweak it up with shadow shapes.
Then comes the closing routine:
kick and dance onto the stage,
rush behind the theater drapes.
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