02 December 2006

Villanelle, A Racy Import With An Interesting Form

Because I was away from poetry for a good month I decided to torture myself by working on a villanelle. A villanelle is only 19 lines long, but has a strict form. The lines can be of any length, contain five tercets and a quatrain in the last stanza. The rhyme scheme is aba with the same end-rhyme for every 1st and last line of each tercet and the final two lines of the quatrain. You must repeat two of the lines, the first line of the 1st stanza is repeated as the last line of the 2nd and the 4th stanzas and as the second-to-last line in the concluding quatrain. The 3rd line of the 1st stanza is repeated as the last line of the 3rd and the 5th stanzas, and as the last line in the concluding quatrain.

Got that? Good. (You know the most famous of the villanelles. Think eccentric Welshman.)Remember, it's only aba in rhyme scheme, arranged as follows:

A1 b A2
a b A1
a b A2
a b A1
a b A2
a b A1 A2


The first five lines are the tercets (3tercets x 5lines=15) and the last line is the quatrain (4lines + 15lines=19lines). The last two lines of the poem make a rhymed couplet. It's not as stodgy as it sounds, you can use enjambment to break up the lines, you can modify the rhymes slightly for effect, you can bend the rules to suit your style. So why even bother if there are so many rules to the form? Because it's like scales in music. Working within the constraints is sometimes more freeing than free verse.

Finding the right combination of lines that doesn't sound, well, stupid when repeated is a challenge. Not to mention that it's damn near impossible to create a narrative poem within a villanelle. So to keep myself from getting stuck in a write and writing only narrative poems, I play with other forms and thank the French, who gave us mayonnaise, the gyroscope, and the villanelle. (The most famous example? Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas. Go Google it.)


The Waking
-- Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.I learn by going where I have to go.

2 comments:

Carla said...

Very complicated! I never got beyond limericks.........

Constance said...

It's not too awful complicated even though it looks that way at first. Find the right couple lines for the repeat and it pretty much writes itself. :)