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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?

5 Programs to Use for Your Writing


(c) 2013 Windy Johansen

I use more than one program for my writing. I don’t currently use all of these, as some cost a lot, but they are useful programs that I have used in the past.

Microsoft Word (Windows/Mac)

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A Poetic Look At: Sestina


(c) 2013 Windy Johansen

What’s a Sestina?

It’s a rather long poetry form.

Oh eek. How long?

It’s 6 stanzas, each with 6 lines. You take the ending words of each of the lines in the first stanza, and use them again for ending each line in subsequent stanzas, in a specific order of…scrambling, you could say. (You are allowed to changed your ending words forms or not, depending on who you ask.)

Traditionally, it also possessed an envoi. That is a three line final stanza that used all the ending words in it. This also has a dictated order, but only for the ending words. (All ending words are used, but certain ones are placed at the end, and this is based on their position in the first stanza.

This form doesn’t dictate a meter.

You…what..it..purple monkey dishwasher…?

Ah….um…the best way to do this is to show you.

Okay. That sounds better, I’m sure it will make sense then.

It will.

I’m going to show you one of mine from several years ago. All I can say for it is that it follows the form. (The end words in the first stanza are italicized, to better help you understand.)

My Confessional Sestina
Let me contribute my opinion.
Sestinas in poetry workshops
may not be an opportunity
to witness gems of taste and form,
but it is the job of the teacher
to show the value of balance.

The job is one of balancing
form and spirit, with no fear of opinion
outside, strengthening students by teaching
confidence in the personal workshop
of the mind. In poetry, form
opens the passage of creative opportunity.

The opportunity
of the student is to learn to balance
the scaffolding of form
with the flesh of opinion.
In a workshop,
this skill is what they try to teach.

It offers those who teach
and those who are taught opportune
time to work on and shop in the workshop
for words and phrases to balance
the shimmer of opinion
on the strength of form.

This strong form
Must be taught
So it can support opinion
without caging creative opportunity.
This balance
invites a ennobling workshop.

In a truly ennobling workshop
the learning of form
brings balance
to the work being taught.
It gives the student the opportunity
to form their own opinion.

It is the two which form the balance
in a workshop meant to give opportunity
for people to teach themselves their own opinion.

Now I get it.

I was hoping you would. :)

Helpful links:

A Poetic Look At: How Iambic Pentameter Isn’t Terrifying (Nor Is Any Other Meter)


(c) 2013 Windy Johansen

Ack! Meter AGAIN?

I-I know. I kind of messed it up before. Also, it helps to revisit things like this every now and again.

But it’s boring! And lame! Did I mention it was boring?
Yeah, it kind of is. It’s one of those fussy things. But it helps give your writing better…flow, you might call it.

O-Oh. Okay. Why?

There’s an inherent musicality in words, in the interplay of different stresses. If you put them together in the right way, you can mold your words to flow sweetly and calmly…or you can purposefully make them very jarring. (If you’re writing a scary scene, think of how it might help to have your words assisted by a jarring sort of rhythm. Conversely, think of how two lovers might speak to one another, and how you can show us their love for one another without relying entirely on just the words they speak.)

So I..hm. So how does this work?

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Writing Prompt: Violent Skies


(c) 2013 Windy Johansen

The skies can be very violent. Storms are often used in poetry to symbolize chaotic feelings and events. What if you really thought about what kind of storm your feelings/this event are closer to than just a generic storm? If you will be writing a non-autobiographical poem, think about which storm best symbolizes your speaker’s feelings/the event.

Would you like more detail? Here’s a few ways to get it.

Think about the colors in storms. There are some storms I’ve never seen, but gray seems to be a common color. Do you see any other color? Is it gray because the storms are so boring now? I’ve seen pictures of red/orange skies and dark blue skies as well as gray. Are there other colors?

Think about the shapes. Lightning is jagged. It makes incomplete triangles so easily. More rare are the lightning bolts that make instant white-hot jagged networks. Storm clouds are dark and angry-looking. Are they still fluffy, maybe? Lonely in a crowd and getting angry and dark to cover for it?

Howling wind, gently drumming rain, pounding hail. What sound does snow make? Does the silence open up any fresh possibilities? Is it maybe light, or is it heavy? Is the weight soothing, or is it trapping? If you could hear snow fall, what would it sound like? Tornadoes and hurricanes blow windows out. How many different sounds could that event make? (Maybe not very many. I’ve not heard many windows break.) Tornadoes sound like trains. What else do they sound like? What do hurricanes sound like?

The air feels wet and heavy. The wind whips and embraces everything. The raindrops dance on your arms and hands. The cold soothes your head. What else?

The air smells clean. Or just…wet. There’s maybe a leafy scent in there. Do different storms have different scents to you? How does the smell make you feel? Does it remind you of kind things? It reminds me of my hometown, an Olympic city and headquarters of the faith I hold dear. But what does your mind bring to the surface when you smell the rain from storms? What about the smells of other results?

I hope this helps you in your writing.