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

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.

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3 Comments

  1. I am free of form when it comes to my poems, as you know, but I do appreciate the work you put in here. You are not alone in struggling with the villanelle format as a friend of mine said that she also had issues with getting her images to fit into the format!

    Reply
  2. There just has to be a trade-off. Same with a sonnet, for example, but the villanelle is harder, though a couple of good lines go a long way.

    Reply

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