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.
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.)
Notice, also, that you can introduce minor changes to the repeated lines, for interest, as the poet did in the following poem:
Few Precious Words
I have few precious words to grind, [LINE 1]
to work through meaning cold lips deny.
It’s time, you said; you changed your mind. [LINE 3]
I urge you stay. You rush to go, to put behind
my mourning long from quick goodbyes
that leave no precious words to grind, [LINE 1]
to parse how love could track so blind
and barbed to make me red- and redder eyed.
It’s time, you said; you’d changed your mind, [LINE 3]
found others do where no oaths bind.
To me your promise once gave lie,
such precious word I grieve to grind. [LINE 1]
No riddle solved, no reason find.
This heart you took and broke; but why?
It’s time, you said; I’ve changed my mind. [LINE 3]
From you I turn; I speak, unkind.
This bitterest root I plant yet cry,
Leave me some precious words to grind. [LINE 1]
No time, you said; I’ve changed my mind. [LINE 3]
—Maureen Doallas, author of Neruda’s Memoirs
Photo by Sonia Joie. Used with permission.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland