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How to Write a Villanelle

By Eighty Six

The villanelle is a nineteen line poem with a strict pattern of repetition. This form of poetry can be a great way to explore a repeated thought or feeling. Read on for examples and directions on how to write one of your own.

846 3932520 The villanelle consists of five tercets (rhyming ABA) followed by one quatrain (rhyming ABAA). The first and third lines are repeated alternately at the end of each Tercet. They also form the final two lines.

The form is best illustrated with an example. Everyone uses the classic “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, which is a great poem, but I'll give you some Sylvia Plath instead:

Mad Girl's Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary blackness gallops in:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed

And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:

Exit seraphim and Satan's men:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,

But I grow old and I forget your name.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;

At least when spring comes they roar back again.

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

History

429 2984417 The term villanelle was not always applied to a strict poetic form. During the Renaissance, a villanella was a Spanish or Italian country dance song, coming from the word for peasant. French poets placed the title villanelle on any poem featuring a pastoral or rustic theme. Only one Renaissance poem, Jean Passerat's “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle”, was known to use the pattern of the modern villanelle.

The nineteen line form never caught on in France but became big among English-speaking poets. Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney and Edward Arlington Robinson each worked with the villanelle in the twentieth century.

Build Your Own

Why use the villanelle to as a poetic form? What are its strengths?

The repetition of lines one and three are good for tackling those issues we'll never resolve. Plath attempted unsuccessfully to understand love and attraction. Thomas struggled with acceptance of death. If you have a theme that just won't leave you alone, the type that won't stay out of your head, perhaps a villanelle will help express your feelings.

The Perfect Couplet

No doubt lines one and three are the most important bricks in your structure. They reoccur throughout and become the final couplet. If these are not strong lines, then there is no strength in your poem.

Therefore, a villanelle should be written backwards. Know how you want to end and build the verse from there.

Free write on your theme. Get all of your feelings out onto paper without holding back or self-editing. Be specific and visceral, but also take space to be philosophic. Get to the essential question or problem. Somewhere in there are your final two lines.

Make sure the rhyme feels natural. Remember, most of the poem will rhyme with this couplet, so make it easy. Reorder the lines or look for synonyms if you need to.

Spend more effort on these two lines that any other part of this poem. If this couplet strikes with a boom, then your poem will be powerful.

Meter and Variation

No specific metric rhythm is required of a villanelle, but iambic pentameter is historically common. In a poem this structured, variation is essential. Consider an accentual rhythm where the number of stresses is constant but the number of syllables varies.

Thomas' villanelle is basically iambic pentameter, but his variety is built into his third line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The line has ten syllables, but it begins with two stresses, creating an urgent imperative feel.

Bishop varies her line three as she repeats it, yet still ends with “disaster”.

Heaney varies verb tenses within his repeated lines and uses caesurae often throughout his poem.

Robinson pairs his theme of emptiness to sparse six syllable lines.

Plath has the most regular iambic pentameter of this group, but uses parentheses to place her third line away from the others as if it wasn't meant to be there. In line ten, right in the middle of the poem, she clumps together stresses to powerfully break from the iambic rhythm. “God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade”.

Once you've found the right couplet for your villanelle, you'll find the rhythm for the rest of your lines. Feel free to stray from traditional expectations. This is your modern poem. The only sure path to failure is to be too rigid. If you keep the basic rhyme scheme and a nineteen line framework, your creation will be recognizable as a villanelle. Make sure to break up the enforced structure to make something energetic and surprising.

Imagery

More than any other, this form wants to dwell on heavy themes. By nature, the villanelle goes over and over the challenging thoughts of life. Beware not to be too preachy or read straight from a book of philosophy. Remember, a good poem makes the reader feel what you feel, not simply describes what you feel.

Find a central image. What concrete metaphor embodies the emotions you're struggling with? Fill another page with free-writing about the sensual details. What texture do these ideas have? How do they taste?

Be sure to get into the guts of your theme. Give it a real physical form. Use these sensory details to craft the remaining lines of your poem.

Fill in the Blanks

Now that you've established your two central lines, grab a page and write them down. Fill in the villanelle form with those two lines and look at the spaces between. You know how you want to end. How do you need to start? What will land in between?

Think about a small topic for each stanza. Spend some time brain-storming on the two missing lines. Keep a common thread moving through the poem that is true to your central image.

This is when you'll decide how much to vary your repeated lines. Change as necessary to keep the logic and tense working. You'll know if the lines can remain the same.

Give it Voice

Read it to yourself. Record it and listen. Read it to your friends.

Read it to people who don't like you. They'll give you more constructive advice.

The poem should build with power as it moves along. You should feel more tension coming into your voice without even trying. It should end with a bang.

If it doesn't, keep working until it does.

Good luck on your villanelle.