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How to write a villanelle ...

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Developing Graham Sherwood’s theme of inquiring more deeply into the making of our poetry, and encouraged by the success of our challenge to you to write a nonet, we at Write Out Loud are launching a little guide to poetic form. We hope that some of you will find this useful and interesting, and apologies to those who know all this sort of stuff already.

So let’s continue with the villanelle. Contrary to at least one theory espoused on this site recently, poetic form is not a recent conspiracy by the poetry establishment to try and restrain us, to rein us all in. The villanelle, instead, began several centuries ago, and started as an Italian rustic song. According to The Making of a Poem, a Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, it was then developed by a French poet called Jean Passerat, who died in 1602.

The actual structure of a villanelle is as follows. There are five stanzas of three lines each. They are followed by a final stanza – a quatrain – of four lines. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas. The third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas. The two repeated lines are also the last two lines of the final, closing quatrain.

And that’s not all. There is a rhyme scheme. It’s aba, which is continued throughout the tercets (three-line stanzas) of the poem. As Strand and Boland say, “these lines reappear to match and catch the refrains, throughout the villanelle. The third line of the first stanza rhymes with the third line of the fourth stanza. And so on.”

It thus has a circular, if not somewhat haunting quality. But show us some examples, I hear you say.

Well, probably the most famous one is Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, by Dylan Thomas. There’s also One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop, who keeps the final word of the second repeated line, but changes its wording somewhat. Here’s another, to make you laugh – Reading Scheme, by Wendy Cope.

As it happens, I’ve only attempted one villanelle in my life. It was about how I nearly drowned while trying to row a tiny, fibre-glass dinghy across a Scottish sea loch. Like the rowing attempt, I never tried such a thing again. Maybe I should – the villanelle, I mean.

Fancy having a go yourself? Do post your efforts on the blogs, or add them to the Comments under this post, or do both.

 

 

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Greg Freeman

Fri 5th Apr 2024 16:25

I'm sure he won't mind too much if I remind folks that Write Out Loud co-founder Julian Jordon wrote an award-winning villanelle a few years ago:

You, Me and Those Who Came Before

It’s a challenge being a refugee,

trying to live up to those who came before,

And learning how to drink your British tea.



The climate’s hostile, surely you agree?

It never rains, you complain, but it pours.

It’s a challenge being a refugee,



though we now have a flat with our own key,

no longer dread the knock upon the door

and getting used to cups of British tea.



You too, at times might feel the need to flee.

No one knows what their life has in store.

It’s a challenge being a refugee,



keen to prove how useful we can be

to a welcoming community like yours,

inviting us to take a cup of tea.



Thank you, that fewer nightmares there will be:

no more nocturnal images of war.

It’s a challenge, being a refugee,

though easier when sharing your British cup of tea.


https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=91683




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Greg Freeman

Thu 4th Apr 2024 12:24

Thank you, Steve. The repetition and the understatement makes it all the more effective, I think.

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Steve White

Thu 4th Apr 2024 11:29

Al-Rashid Road

In the land where Goliath once strode
With the whine of a drone overhead
There’s an air strike on Al-Rashid Road

The targeted vehicles explode
And seven aid workers lie dead
In the land where Goliath once strode

In soft-skinned transport they rode
Too easy for missiles to shred
There’s an air strike on Al-Rashid Road

Where the lifeblood of charity flowed
Good Samaritans now fear to tread
In the land where Goliath once strode

With shelling the alms they erode
Denying the starving their bread
There’s an air strike on Al-Rashid Road

A ceasefire now surely is owed
As blood-soaked the path lays ahead
In the land where Goliath once strode
There’s an air strike on Al-Rashid Road

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Greg Freeman

Thu 4th Apr 2024 08:25

Oh, all right, as a result of popular demand ... or rather, despite a complete lack of, I will post my one and only villanelle. Found in the archives, written in 2004, apparently. Set on the west coast of Scotland. I'll blog it as well.

THE FERRY WAITS

Like a fought-over bed, the ancient rock
tumbles, crumbles to the shore.
The ferry waits to leave the dock.

Spinning, wind-whipped, on the loch,
struggling against nature in the raw.
Like a fought-over bed, the ancient rock.

The waves heap up, a sudden shock.
Forget for once the thoughts that gnaw.
The ferry waits to leave the dock.

Did you count me lost as you eyed the clock?
Did you think of calling in the law?
Like a fought-over bed, the ancient rock.

Relieved, you try hard not to mock
when you come smiling to the door.
The ferry waits to leave the dock.

Watching the sunset, taking stock
together, wondering what's in store.
Like a fought-over bed, the ancient rock.
The ferry waits to leave the dock.




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