I See You in There: the Villanelle

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.

Post by David K. Wheeler, author of Contingency Plans: Poems.

How to Write a Villanelle

modified reprint, from Inspired: 8 Ways to Write Poems You Can Love

The villanelle began as a song and dance form, sung by shepherds and farmers in the Italian countryside. Perhaps it is no surprise that the villanelle resists narrative development and relies on repetition. It may have been the perfect accompaniment to a day of harvest or planting, a night of keeping sheep under the stars.

Try it? Consider an area of your life that feels repetitive and resistant to answers. An argument, a relationship, a job, an emotion or memory that won’t leave you be. What is the central piece that feels repetitive? Put it in the repeating lines. (Lines one and three repeat in a shifting fashion.)

The poem should contain 19 lines altogether, made up of stanzas of three lines until the final stanza of four. The rhyme scheme is simple aba, aba, and so on until the last stanza… abaa. Where to put Line 1, besides the initial Line 1 : 2nd stanza, third line; 4th stanza, third line; 6th stanza, third line. Where to put Line 3, besides the initial Line 3 : 3rd stanza, third line; 5th stanza, third line; 6th stanza, fourth line. (See sample poem, which marks the position of the lines for you.)

At the Window

I look at you, as if [LINE 1]
for the first time, purpled
against the fading gift [LINE 3]

of day. I gingerly lift
the glass, decades-rippled
and I look at you, as if [LINE 1]

these years had not a rift
between you and me created
against the fading gift [LINE 3]

of fragrance, lilac shrift
upon the wind unstated
and I look at you, as if [LINE 1]

for the first time adrift
on the wind, unrelated,
and I look at you as if [LINE 1]
against a fading gift. [LINE 3]

—L.L. Barkat, author of the writer’s story The Novelist: A Novella

Photo by Sonia Joie. Used with permission.


  1. says

    Good post! And a fun approach, using that subject matter.

    The traditional villanelle also observes a rhyme scheme, which adds to the difficulty of writing in the form.

    Julie Kane, Louisiana’s Poet Laureate, has written some great villanelles; I included one in my Monday Muse column about her.

    There are some good examples at Tilt-a-Whirl, too.

    I’m working on a couple now.

  2. says

    That is good. I tried a villanelle recently and it was so over-the-top it was embarrassing. Maybe light-hearted is the way to go. (P.S. I teared up at the new Muppet movie.)


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