This Week’s Form: the Villanelle

As you know, I’m in a workshop this semester with formal poet Rachel Hadas. I must admit that, in the weeks leading up to school, I was a little nervous about the thought of iambic pentameter and such. Rachel’s workshop, however, has turned out to be quite a joy. Yes, form is challenging. Yes, sometimes writing a formal poem takes much, much longer than I’m used to. But – it is also true that there is a sort of freedom to be discovered in form. It’s nice to know that the line breaks and the structure have been laid out for me. In particular, I’ve enjoyed the forms that make use of repitition and the Villanelle certainly qualifies.

Here’s a little explanation via our friends at the Academy of American Poets:

The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2

Before you start writing one of these bad boys, may I suggest reading One Art by Elizabeth Bishop and/or Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dlyan Thomas – among others. It’s always helpful to see what other writers have managed to do with the form. It gives me a little help and a little hope.


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