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Villanelle Lover

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Fitting the Villanelle Form to a Villanelle Theme

As much and more than any other formal poetic form, the villanelle begs for its form to reflect the poem’s theme and for the theme to lean heavily on the form. A good fit between the villanelle form and the poem’s theme is what makes a good villanelle work.

I didn’t understand that at all in that college class Hollis taught running me through just about every formal poetic form in early Turco. And getting a very loose feel of the differences between the different forms I had to write for that class never clued me in on it. While I had a mild admiration of Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle. I came away from the Hollis class pretty much hating the villanelle form, viewing it almost as low as I then viewed the limerick (which, by the way, I have also since learned to appreciate rather highly).

Nancy set me straight; then her protégé Maggie showed me how it was done. Nancy wrote upwards of a hundred villanelles; Maggie followed with several hundred. Both resisted pleas from me and their other friends to pursue publication; so you’ll only find selected samples of their work posted on the Internet. And certainly there would come many a poetry critic who would dismiss the quality of some – perhaps even most – of the villanelles those two wrote. But some of their pieces stand out as fine work, in my own humble opinion. And even most of their villanelles that might be considered mediocre or poor at least showed the character of the form, insofar as fitting its structure to the voice of the poem they meant to write.

I can still remember the amused look on Nancy’s face when I confessed why I had always hated the form. I had just complimented her on one of her villanelles. I had seen maybe a dozen of hers by then, so I added that she seemed to have a bit of familiarity with the form bordering on being at ease with it. She shrugged it off at first, muttering something about her father’s having had an obsession with the form. I responded that I myself had only written one villanelle, but that I’d come away from the experience hating it worse than a sestina. She laughed – she was good at sestinas as well, and we’d already had light debates about that form. But on the question of the villanelle, I felt I had some solid footing. As impressed as I’d been by her villanelles, I objected to the forced artificiality of the repetition.

“But that’s the point!” she told me. Whenever one comes upon a theme or metaphor in which repetition is key to the poetry of it, she claimed that the villanelle ought by rights to be the formal form of choice, to the point of having exclusive rights to the idea unless some other aspect intervened or gave cause for a divergence. Many modern poets who indulge exclusively in free forms miss the joy of the villanelle and wind up with poems that lack muscle, according to her, because they are attempting to reflect repetition with a structure that has none.

We were in a coffee shop near her room in Manhattan, so she pointed the waitress out to me. Watch, she instructed me. After a few minutes spent watching in silence, she questioned me on the waitress’ routine, adding a few follow-up questions to emphasize something that was the same in the routine – a lot that was obvious, of course – but then probing me about whether I’d picked up on some variances in the routine. Just a brief appraisal of an ordinary scene. But then she challenged me, “See?” And when I still had not realized even from the context what she had been up to, she explained, “We just witnessed a villanelle.”

And to prove her point, she opened her notebook and scribbled out a couplet, briefly held it out to show me; then while I watched she composed a rough draft of a full villanelle, including in every single stanza word for word some of what we had just discussed.

Then after she had read it out loud for me, editing it into a second draft as she did so, she told me to watch, she would illustrate the point of the fitting of the form by contrast. At which point she quickly composed a second poem – “sonnet,” she chirped as she held up her draft to show me – then a third and a fourth and a fifth, each time holding up her notebook and calling out the form. She then read each poem aloud, concluding her illustration by reciting her villanelle, revised by the experience of having written her other forms on the same theme.

She observed that her goal had been to reflect my own implied criticism of the drudgery of the repetition of the villanelle with the presumption of drudgery in the routine of this waitress; and only when she’d stated her private metaphor did I realize that her villanelle was in fact more directed at making a response to my discussion of the poetic form than it stood as a description of the waitress. She then asked me for my thoughts about which of the forms she’d written served that goal best. I remember still being floored at the exercise she had just conducted. I’d witnessed her composing complicated poems on the fly before, but that was the first time she’d shown me something she would later blame on her father: getting at a poem by writing what she didn’t want it to be. But I had to admit that for what she wanted, her villanelle was indeed the best way to go, that even the freedom of the free verse she’d written for one of her alternative forms was not in fact “free” enough to reflect what she meant to say.

She persisted, as if to question her own point. Which of the others, she asked, might maybe make the same point better? I was lost. She pointed to her triolet, another form I’d not done well with in the Hollis class. And it clicked: both her villanelle and her triolet had leaned on the repetition to echo routine in a manner that suggested drudgery, then had set that off from the non-repeating portions of each of the forms to illuminate where and how the light can break through the grip of the routine. But only her villanelle caught the variances she had probed me to observe. Her triolet caught the repetition in a unique way that the villanelle might have become boorish to rant over, she pointed out. According to her, that was the problem with many weak villanelles: if the poet had no variations to explore to sufficient depth, then she would suggest they assign a triolet to their theme.

She then gave me a quick assignment, one she credited to her father, who she said would often force her to do under threat of punishment if she failed to satisfy him with her work. She challenged me to look around the coffee shop and within five minutes give her five more potential themes for a villanelle. “Villanelles are all over,” she chirped. I did as she asked, and when we met the following week as usual, she had a polished villanelle for each of the themes I’d set, along with companion sonnets and other forms to emphasize how she said she often wrote.

Maggie nodded with a smile when I told her about that episode about a year after Nancy had died. She said that she had complained that attempting a villanelle had felt like she was saying the same thing over and over, that it felt more like a math lecture than a poem. “Or like our therapists?” she said Nancy had quipped. Maggie and Nancy had shared time in a psych ward, so the challenge was meant to sting. But then, Maggie said, her mentor had done exactly the same thing with her that had been done with me: off the cuff, without even writing it down in a notebook, Nancy had recited a fresh villanelle that had included several of the most repeated admonitions of their therapists, yet had colored that repetition against incidents that had occurred that very day, in the end revealing an insight into a completely different matter via metaphor, all in a manner in which the structure of the villanelle very properly echoed both the real scene and the metaphor to an extent that would have been difficult to catch in any form other than the villanelle.

Many lists have a natural background repetition that might suggest fitting to a villanelle, but the best list villanelles have repetition beyond that of the list. Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle, as a model of getting it right. The list of those who do not go gentle and those who rage leans on the repetition to strengthen what they all have in common. But well independent of that repetition is the “Fight, fight, fight, fight” never-surrender repeated plea of the son urging his father over and over: never quit, never quit, never never quit. Without a list (except in the progression of her grief), Bishop’s One Art has a similar use of repetition as a way of avoiding acceptance of an unacceptable situation.

And as if her lesson on the fit between and against repetition versus routine were not enough to teach me to love the form, Nancy showed me the beauty in the duality of the villanelle’s two unbalanced rhymes, unbalanced in the sense of not being paired up in a manner typical of sonnets or many other forms. Then the distinctive nature of the first and final stanzas of the form. Then other edges in the villanelle her father had taught her in private lessons, things he never disclosed in in his college lectures. In each case showing these elements not as mechanical constraints, but rather as elements reflecting the nature of life and thought and dream all around us. Properly done, she said, a villanelle’s form could and ought fit a poem’s voice and word as well as a fine dress perfectly fit the form of a woman through every movement of her dance.

Nancy’s lesson and Maggie’s practice hasn’t made a better villanelle writer of me, but at least I now enjoy every one that comes to me, so often with flashbacks to that winter afternoon in a Manhattan coffeeshop. And I see and hear and feel villanelles written by others with a completely different eye, ear and spirit.

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Written by macheide

4 August 2015 at 8:12 pm

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