Villainy, Villanelle

The villanelle is one of the most tightly-constructed of poetic forms. Some might think such forms were archaic, but there has actually been a movement back towards tight forms as a minority pursuit.

I rarely try anything like that because the amount of planning, of conscious direction of the development of the poem, is alien to my normal way of doing things. Nonetheless, what we haven’t tried we want to try. Somehow it came to me yesterday to try my hand at a villanelle.

The most famous English-language villanelle is relatively recent – Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Here it is – to show how tightly constructed and difficult the form is and also how it can flow and burn with passion.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

So, you see, a poem of 19 lines relies on just two repeated rhyming sounds, in this case -ite (night, height) and -ay (day, pray). The rhyming scheme is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA (sorry if that makes you think of sheep; or on further reflection, why should I apologise for making you think of sheep, especially if you’re Welsh?). Two lines are repeated regularly in a set sequence: the first verse uses both and then they alternate as the end line of each verse until in the last four-line verse they both appear. The positions are set.

Difficult! On the basis of having written one of the things myself, I offer this advice to aspiring villanelle writers. Because the two rhyming sounds are worked so hard, it’s essential to select ones that provide plenty of rhymes. -ite and -ay do; and so do -ie and -o as in die or go. But if you started a villanelle with the final word “burnt” you’d be in big trouble. Earnt, learnt and that’s about it. Also the two regularly repeated lines absolutely must be strong – that is, bearing repetition, memorable, emotive. If possible I suggest they should also be flexible, capable of subtle changes in meaning or emphasis depending on the context (the previous line). For my money Dylan’s two lines don’t achieve this, but it’s still a great poem, much better by far than mine.

Well, here’s my experimental effort. I will say that it isn’t quite what I would have wanted to write, that it stresses fate more and awe and joy less than I would have done in a freer-form poem; but that’s one aspect of tight forms. They’re like ruts in a track. Drive along and you may find your tyres in the ruts and the car going not quite where you want.

Here goes.


The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky
And I am in a land I do not know
For I have books with many reasons why.

It seems impossible to laugh or cry
It seems disloyalty to turn and go
The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky.

There are no words and so there is no lie
The wind is steady and the wind is slow
For I have books with many reasons why.

So standing here there is no need to fly
Though I have flown, the day is for the crow
The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky.

So will the stars burn steady when we die
And burn as steady when the new things grow
For I have books with many reasons why.

What we build up, erosion will deny
This word will rule that we set always low
The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky
For I have books with many reasons why.

Some would argue that the first repeated line is wrong because it has too many syllables. I rely on elision (slowlyacross). I think it helps to convey the smooth movement of the clouds across the starry sky; and too much regularity becomes mechanical. By the way, I’d have added more tags and categories but WordPress has mucked up this function.

Maybe I’ll try this form again.

Book review: Stephen Done, “The Last Train”

I’ve been posting very rarely for a while. Partly that’s because I’m not writing much poetry at present and have gone through all the old poems I wanted to post, but partly it’s because of the U.K. general election – I’m a political activist – and that may also help to explain the shortage of poetry. It’s not a matter of time but of mental space to get into the right mood.

I think in my next post I might talk about different aspects of people that may seem to be separate and may surprise other people, and quote a few points about me that might get other people doing the same. But for now here’s a book review.

I’d not come across Stephen Done before, but the blurb told me this was one of a series of British detective novels and that it involved a ghost appearing. The fictional detective works in an equally fictional Railway Detective Department a few years after the Second World War. I imagine Done’s core audience combines detective story enthusiasts with railway buffs: at least, there are trains and railway lines even where the story doesn’t seem to need them, described in loving detail.

The story involves a disappearance during the war, the ghost (apparently) of a young woman who looks and sounds like a live human but is just not there when someone stumbles into her, the discovery of body parts and an Indian jewel that apparently brings disaster to anyone who has it. This probably sounds like melodramatic pap. It’s actually done with skill. The reader is given information that pretty well rules out the ghost not actually being a ghost and it’s quite rapidly clear who the villain is, so in that sense it’s an odd detective story, but there is plenty of room for speculation about what exactly happened.

There is surprisingly vivid and poetic descriptive writing. I’m not entirely sure that this kind of fast-paced detective story is the best place for it, but I admire the author not only for his skill but also for his readiness to break away from bald, pared-down prose. The characters are entirely credible, but the dialogue, while it cleverly reflects  people’s preoccupations, character and misunderstandings, is sometimes rather stilted. The police detectives talk among themselves as if they were writing official reports.

I enjoyed it.