Finding My Way to the Villanelle
“It sounds constraining,” the bright-faced, clever-eyed high school freshman told me. It wasn’t a challenge, but a true response. The sonnet seemed a little too structured for his taste. Good thing I didn’t start with the villanelle.
Tania Runyan does, in her book How to Write a Form Poem. What a way to begin! Nineteen lines, two of them repeating four times each in precise places, and a rhyme scheme that never deviates from A or B. Complicated and simplistic at the same time, It’s a mode made for nursery rhymes, I thought as I waded into the first chapter. A literary trainwreck waiting to happen. Still, I intended to try my hand at a villanelle, and I heeded Tania’s call to look around—listen around, as it were—and write the first line that came to mind. I found it easily, just outside my window:
The birds in the yard sing,
And then what? I’d figure it out later; time to take my daughter to her counseling appointment. In the waiting room, I breathed deep, a moment of peace, and then pulled out my phone, because that is what we do now. The birds in the yard sing, I ruminated, and opened the email that just last week had offered me a tenth grade English teaching position for the fall. Did I want to talk more about sonnets and free verse and, goodness, all the American Lit we can fit into a school year with that sonnet-doubting kid and and his classmates? You bet. But till a month ago, I wouldn’t have.
“I’m not made for classroom teaching,” I’ve said to anyone who asks these last twenty years. I hold a never-used degree in Secondary English Ed. “I got the wrong degree.” I believed this until I stepped into that ninth grade class last month to teach an observation lesson as part of my interview for a job I wasn’t even sure I wanted. On that morning, intending to do my best by those students, even if I decided to part ways with the opportunity, I shook my head clear, locked in on the seven faces gazing expectantly back at me, and asked them to tell me what they think makes a poem a poem.
“I haven’t taught a lesson yet on poetry this year. Could you do poems with them?” the regular classroom teacher asked the week before, when we were planning for my observation teaching. “Maybe the sonnet?” she wondered. I had to laugh. I’ve loved poetry for years and years, since an especially good Intro to Poetry class in undergrad – a class I took my final semester, instead of doing my student teaching for certification. A senior in college, I’d already decided teaching was a “no” for me, though literature a resounding “yes,” whatever that would mean for my future. I don’t often go to poetry now for my own reading; I’m more of an essay-and-novel girl. But when I do, it’s always rewarding.
When I smiled so wide, the freshman English teacher didn’t know that I’d signed up for a poetry workshop several months ago. Not because I think of myself as a poet, but because I don’t. Here I am, an essayist, setting out to write my first book of essays, and I figured, Poetry will surely make me a better prose writer. I was onto something, but it wasn’t what I expected.
So I laughed, “Yes.” I’ve been swimming in poetry. “I can teach the kids about the sonnet.” The sonnet chapter of Runyan’s How to Write a Form Poem helped—boy, did it help!—my planning for that under-the-microscope class period. Not least, her inclusion of Tom Hunley’s utterly delightful It’s Not So Hard to Write a Sonnet, Man, with its stop-you-in-your-tracks turn at the end. This would make the kids laugh—and think. What I wasn’t sure of was myself, my ability to take the passion I had on the page, for the written word, and gift it to these seven young souls, so ready to be fed the things that matter.
I still don’t understand what happened that morning. I walked into the class, chatted nervously with the teacher, Expo-markered a journal question on the whiteboard: “What is poetry?” And returned smiles for each student’s quizzical gaze: Who is this lady? What is she doing here? I’m wondering the same thing, kid. But then the students began to share their answers, and suddenly, I was there with them. I was nowhere else but in this moment, hearing from them what poetry might mean, might be, might do, and returning my own guiding thoughts on the matter. The hour flew. They wrote and they shared and I wrote and I shared and we all read and laughed and wondered and praised, and five minutes before those fifteen-year-olds – who I was dying to teach again – had to walk out the door, I realized we’d not gotten to the sonnet.
“You’ll just have to wait till I can teach you again sometime,” I breezily told them, but that bright-eyed student was having none of it.
“Can you just tell us what a sonnet is?” he pleaded. Who can say no to that? I grabbed the dry-erase marker and sketched out the verse and rhyme scheme as quickly as I could: those three Shakespearian quatrains and then the couplet, ABAB CDCD and onward. No real time to explain the volta, which is my favorite thing about the form. I swifted copies of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s monumental Ozymandias to each desk as the first recipient read it aloud.
“Spend some time with this one,” I encouraged. “There’s so much there.”
“I don’t know,” that first student said, furrowing his brow at the formulated ABC’s I’d written on the board. “It feels too controlled.”
I paused for a beat, unsure what I could give him in twenty seconds. Only this: “I would love,” I told him, “I would love to get the chance to show you the ways a sonnet can open up so much creativity, so much truth.” And I meant it, not just about the sonnet, but about the chance to keep doing this thing, to be, to become – gulp – a classroom teacher.
From Acceptance to Villanelle Truth
After typing out an acceptance email and hitting reply on my phone in the counselor’s waiting room, I turned back to that starting line of my own villanelle. It needed its second repeating line before I could work within the parameters to get at some meaning, some truth. Runyan explains that this form’s tightly-regulated approach to verse opens up the opportunity for cyclical thinking, for ebbing and flowing with a particular thought or need. I thought of it as a sort of worry stone to turn and turn over and over again, until I’ve got something of the truth of it, a resolution, in the grasp of that final, sixth quatrain.
And that struck home: toeing the waters of teaching notwithstanding, my life, our family’s life, is in flux in other ways, in ways similar to many of us after walking through this pandemic year. Everything that felt settled is up in the air: work, town, church. Who knows where we’ll land after all the changes quit cycling through and the dust settles? There is a lot of change, desired and not, and a lot of questioning, When may I leave?
That was it. That was my second line, my life right now, and all the stability and unsteadiness hand-in-hand. The birds in the yard, coming and going, and myself, choosing to make changes accordingly. A straight-line walk through free verse to an end any way I like it would never have done; the villanelle was ready and waiting:
The birds in the yard sing,
but I am grounded. I need to know:
When may I leave?
In the waiting area, I chewed at the pen tip. All the things so many of us have seen this last year: the senseless deaths sweeping the world on the heels of a virus resisting control, last summer’s racial killings now on the screen, before our eyes. And the ways we’ve diverged: pandemic response and political angst. There is a lot of leaving, and a lot of inner conflict over the decision. I know I’m not the only one.
I cannot stop thinking of this thing
between us, the pain that won’t go,
though the birds in the yard they still sing.
Now I was touching something that was true. I scribbled on the pages of a tiny, dog-eared notebook one of my children had left in my purse. This was the question I needed to circle, and circle again:
How can we see this same world that’s ringed
round with all the goodness we know,
Say it, self:
. . . I must leave?
An intake of breath, a huge sigh of relief. What now? I walked around the question once more. What worried me? I knew right away: the community that mattered to me, the one I would be leaving, because I do hold them in my heart; they do matter to me, though we begin to walk separate ways.
When you’re told, the truth may wing
its way to your heart, or may not, though
What will make this okay? . . .
. . . the birds will sing,
And hearing them will bring
the peace that unknots and lifts, because, oh,
Say it now, self:
I’ll admit: I do want to leave.
Circle that question a last time; admit more:
It’s likely you won’t see. That’s okay. God’s wing
reaches over us both; I can go,
and the birds in the yard, how brightly they sing
of how happy I am to leave.
My daughter and her kind, knowing counselor emerged from the office door, my daughter with a smile on her face. The session had gone well; she’d been understood and seen. I stuffed the poem into my bag. I, also, had found a place of understanding, as though the poem’s form had first known me, and made a place where I could more clearly see. The two of us, my ten-year-old and I, held hands — a rarity — as we walked through the door. There were birds in the trees that late spring day, and they did sing.
When I stood in front of those students in the classroom, when I opened my mouth and my mind and my heart to them and to poetry and to linking the two together, the sensation was truly one I’d never felt before. It was as though there was an invisible mold in the air, shaped just for me, my forty-four-year-old self, this soft, grounded body so unlike the one I walked in young and lithe my last year of college, free from the bonds of classroom teaching that were too burdensome then to bear. I stepped into it, and the mold locked into place, and I was unbound and free. English teacher: this label, this mode, this form was—is now—made for me.
The sonnet and the villanelle are now friends of mine; I keep them in my pocket, in the back of my mind. I’m a slow reader; I’ll take a year or more to process through all the forms Runyan has waiting for me in her book. That’s fine. Each season as it comes, each self in the mold made for it at just the right time. This world ringed round me with all the goodness that I know.
Photo by Rachel Kramer, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Rebecca D. Martin.