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A Poetic Look At: Villanelle


(c) 2013 Windy Johansen

Villanelles are interesting, if repetitive, poems to compose as well as read. Historically, they described pastoral settings. Of course your villanelles don’t have to keep with history.

You’ll notice that this post has a completely different tone than the previous ones. I’m in the middle of a bout with tendinitis. I’m sitting here, on my couch, dictating this to my computer. Computers are awesome, but it is kind of funny when the computer types “if” every time I sniffle. :D (In the interest of being stupidly detailed, some of this has been typed, and some was written via dictation.)

The villanelle’s form seems complex, and it is complex to explain, but it isn’t too complex to work with. There are several elements. Let’s go through them, and then I’ll show you how I wrote a villanelle for this post. (It may not be awesome, but it will show you how this works, and that’s all I want it to do.)

There are six stanzas. Stanzas one through five each have three lines (stanzas like this are called tercets), while stanza six has four lines (stanzas like this are called quatrains). This gives us nineteen lines.

While villanelles don’t necessarily have to have a meter, it’s now common to write one in pentameter. (A couple hundred years ago either trimeter or tetrameter were common.)

There are two single-line refrains woven into the poem. Since these lines are repeated several times, they have the most power to communicate your central theme. (Refrains are something like short choruses.)
Make sure the first and second refrains flow together and stand on their own two (metaphoric) feet. (Now I wonder what it might look like if they did. Haha.)

The rhyme scheme is at once very simple, and very..not-simple. There are only two rhyme sounds used. This is the simple bit. The other is that you must choose your line-ending words carefully, because you only have two rhyme sounds to use for the whole of the poem.

The rhyme scheme is ABA for every stanza except the final one, which is ABAA. The refrains fall into the rhyme scheme this way:

1st stanza: First line is refrain #1, using rhyme A. Second line uses rhyme B, Third line is refrain #2, which uses rhyme A.
2nd and 4th stanzas: First line uses rhyme A. Second line uses rhyme B, Third line repeats refrain #1, which uses rhyme A.
3rd and 5th stanzas: First line uses rhyme A. Second line uses rhyme B, Third line repeats refrain #2, which uses rhyme A.
6th stanza: First line uses rhyme A. Second line uses rhyme B, Third line repeats refrain #1, which uses rhyme A. Fourth line repeats refrain #2, which uses rhyme A.

How I Wrote A Villanelle
I am not good at writing to a form. I suppose some of my poems could fit a form; I really don’t know. But I wanted to take the challenge. So I made a couple maps for myself, so I didn’t hit any snags and ragequit. (I’m not very patient with my imperfections. But I want us all to be patient with imperfections.)

Refrains: They’re Not Small, They’re Fun-Sized!
I mapped out my refrains, knowing that they needed to carry a lot of weight. I made several changes to my second refrain to make it work better.

refrain 1 (rhyme A): I do not, will not, cannot agree
refrain 2 (rhyme B): with why you’ve made this debris

In the end, involve got tweaked to become involved, but the resulting poem should help you understand the form better. And refrain #2 got change a bunch of times.

Rhyme Time
Since the rhyme scheme uses only two sounds (rhyme A and rhyme B), I listed the rhymes out so that I could see if I had enough words to rhyme with, say, the word solve. If a word has many words that rhyme with it, you don’t need to list all of them for this method to work, you just need to list the ones you want to use.
If you don’t know which ones you want, pick some at random and trust your imagination. If something comes into your mind that fits the rhyme scheme and your poem, don’t worry if it’s not on your list, especially if you like the feel it gives your poem. :) Trust yourself and your creative wisdom.

You don’t have to do this. But I found that it helped me. It could help with making sure you don’t use a cliched rhyme, too. (But don’t be afraid of a cliche. June and moon rhyme, and it’s a cliched rhyme, but maybe your poem is about the moon in June. In that case, you can try to use other words, or just use moon and June…depending on how important it might be to be exact about your descriptions.)

rhyme A (7 needed, refrain lines and first rhyme sound): see, agree, free, three, debris, me, tree, be, knee, flee
rhyme B (6 needed, central lines)::solve, absolve, revolve, involve, devolve, evolve, resolve, dissolve

The Result: “Anger”
I do not, will not, cannot agree
I don’t know what problem you hope to solve
Hey, why’d you make this debris?

Don’t you lie, I know you see
Each new day, I find new resolve
I do not, will not, cannot agree

Your mind can lie to you, but not to me
You can’t get rid of me, I’m too involved
Hey, why’d you make this debris?

For every mile of you, I’ll go three
Tanks, guns, you think you’ll be absolved
I do not, will not, cannot agree

Even if you cry, I’m still free
I don’t get it, why can’t you evolve?
Hey, why’d you make this debris?

If I stand up and draw my sword, you’ll flee
I won’t let your fire destroy, or dissolve
I do not, will not, cannot agree
Hey, why’d you make this debris?

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About rootedphoenix

I am the owner and blogger on this site. Hi! :D I like sparkles, sweets, and being nice. But I also laugh at snarky things. So I'm a work in progress.

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