Tag Archives: formal poetry

How to Write a Villanelle + Publication!

"You should TWEET James's poetry! Haha! I'm so funny. And I'm just a dumb ceramic bird."

I like villanelles. They have a lot of restrictions, and that is one of my favourite things about writing poetry. I do write free verse, but I am happiest when trying to do something new in old forms.

My latest villanelle was just published online in The Literary Nest.

It’s called “The News in Villanelle” and is about how we don’t change our behaviour even when the news reports similar tragedies over and over again. Please check it out here!

But first, you might enjoy this description of how to write a villanelle. This is not just for poets. I think it’s always fun to learn about the behind-the-scenes practices of art. AND, as a bonus, I’ve put one of my older villanelles at the end of this post as well.

Enjoy!

A villanelle is complicated poetical form that has the following features:

  1. There are nineteen lines in six stanzas.
  2. The first five stanzas have three lines; the last stanza has four lines.
  3. There are only two rhyming sounds allowed at the end of lines.
  4. The rhyme scheme looks like this: a1ba2 aba1 aba2 aba1 aba2 aba1a2.
  5. The a1 and a2 indicate that the entire line repeats in those places.
  6. All the lines should be in the same meter (I usually use tetrameter or pentameter).

Confusing? It is a little bit because it’s like a puzzle when you’re putting it together. First, let’s look at a famous villanelle that you may have studied in high school or university:

“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas

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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 the 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.

.

The poem is in pentameter (five beats per line, which usually means ten syllables total).

You can see that “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” repeat and make a pretty badass, memorable couplet at the end.

So how can you write your own?

I usually start a villanelle by thinking of either 1) a topic that would benefit from a form with a repetitive structure or 2) a really great ending couplet (the two lines that rhyme at the end).

The trick is finding two lines that will be able to repeat four times in the poem. I really like to have lines that I can play with grammatically so that every time they repeat, the meaning of the sentence changes.

The first villanelle that I ever wrote was published in 2012 by Wisdom Crieth Without. Their website has since disappeared, so I am going to post it here now for your reading pleasure.

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There’s Nothing Else I Want (Adam’s Villanelle)

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That burning image will forever haunt

me in the middle of my promised land;

despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want

.

to know but why I let that lone tree taunt

me with its secret knowledge on command.

That burning image will forever haunt

.

my love as well. She comes, and from her gaunt

clenched fist pushes a gift into my hand.

Despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want

.

but a taste; it’s too small a fruit to daunt

me, but one bite oils fire and expands

that burning image. Will Forever haunt

.

me as teeth break skin mix fluid? A jaunt

disrupts, the plants disperse, all turned to sand.

Despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want

.

but this new choice — in erring sin — to flaunt

our free will.  Though Eden is forfeit and

that burning image will forever haunt

despite my fears, there’s nothing else I want.

by Gustave Dore

Paradise Lost

By ending line a1 with the verb haunt, I was able to make it refer to a different object each time. My favourite is in the fourth stanza where a period breaks the line and makes the second half part of a question.

Pro tip: Remember when you read poetry aloud, you don’t have to pause at the end of a line: keep following the punctuation as you would prose unless the poet has written the poem in such a way that end stops are assumed to have punctuation.

This poem did not look exactly like this when I first wrote it. I changed it a few times over a few years as I experimented with breaking up the repeating lines. You definitely don’t have to do that (Dylan Thomas didn’t after all!), but it is pretty satisfying to pull it off.

My newest villanelle, as advertised above, can be found here in The Literary Nest!

 

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Wisdom Crieth Without Publication

Wisdom Crieth Without, Issue 10

I have another publication to announce! My villanelle about Adam leaving Eden has been published in Wisdom Crieth Without, Issue 10. It’s an online journal, which means that you can read the poem for free here!

Wisdom Crieth Without is a journal for traditional literary arts, so it’s a great venue for my villanelle. This is the poetic form of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” It uses only two rhymes and two of the full lines repeat throughout the poem. I have tried to play with the punctuation of the repeated lines to make their meaning slightly different each time. I hope you enjoy it.

Please read the rest of the journal too and admire the fine artwork that accompanies each piece of fiction and poetry.


On the Occasion of Your Engagement

Congratulations follow in your wake

Like tropical fish on parade to greet

A passing snorkeller, swept off her feet

By waves of flitting fins outstretched to shake

Her hand and glisten with her ring—but make

Way! New arrivals tread the tide to meet

With her and pay their social dues. Repeat

Until she knows everyone knows. I take

My turn and sink into the tidal gloom

Past memories of dying coral reefs

And sea anemones that will not bloom

Now. They did last year, but I was a thief

In my own mind and stored those all away

Behind a door marked X barred shut today.


Nine of Pentacles

Her practiced fingers stroke the well-worn keys—

A simple melody with simple ease—

Then reach for fifths to fill the pattern’s run

Alone. No rush. There’s no one else to please:

No judge, no jury, no race to be won.

So she slows—settles to a mournful pace

Reminding her of all the pain it took

To get her here: the lines she had to trace

To rise above and toss away the book

Alone. No rush. There’s no one else to please

And that’s enough. She sets her music’s sun

And beauty echoes from her hard-earned grace…

But sly shadows steal an embarrassed look.


Mirror, Dreams

The I in the soul patch slapped off my face

Spread scattered ego shuffling on the breeze

Over every emaciated place

Diminished by my exile’s treason’s ease.

.

The man in my mirror, the man in my dreams

Splits snicker-snack in the caesura’s claws,

Neatly striking my name from where I’ve been

And scribbling it back in between the pause.

.

Same sign, new meaning: a coincidence

Of arbitrary logos advertising

Two different products—and yet all sense

Points at the sameness the change tries disguising.

.

So on these stilted thoughts wobbling across

My portrait, I know I and he are me,

But marvel that a mask’s symbolic loss

Can warp my memories based on what I see.


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