Poetry in Form: The Villanelle
The word “villanelle” is from the French, although the form itself probably originated in Renaissance Italy. Originally, it was not a very structured form, but the villanelle we know today plays by a long list of rules.
Poets are so often rule-breakers. Why would they be drawn to the limits imposed by form? Can free spirits abide having limits set on their creativity?
Some poets believe imposed limits free them from their mind’s repetitive patterns.
I’m in that camp. For example, writing in form forces my brain away from the patterns it wants to follow. It forces me to find and choose words I might not otherwise use. Those two things alone will force me to come up with new ideas.
In this view of creativity, form and order is not the enemy of the fresh and the new. The order imposed by form can actually push the brain out of its ruts into something entirely new.
The Academy of American Poets gives this complicated but thorough definition of the villanelle:
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.
So many rules.
The interlocking pattern of the villanelle resembles obsessive thinking, or how we return to certain obsessions over and over again in our lives. Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” is perhaps the best example of how the form can illuminate — and acknowledge — a personal obsession.
Here’s the prompt part: a form can give you an idea for a new poem. What is one of your obsessions? It could be something you keep nearby at all times. Or something you are afraid of losing. Or an action you perform regularly. It could be a person. Or something you can’t live without. Obsessions can be harmless or dangerous and everything in between. If you feel your obsession is harming you or others, help is available.
The villanelle below is my attempt to illuminate one or two of my obsessions. When performing it at a reading, I always introduce it as a gardening poem. But of course, there’s another level. “Datura” was originally published in The Hypertexts, and also appears in my book, Back East.
I choose datura from the racks of seed
And nurture them with care, although they’ll grow
Up poisonous and beautiful. I need
Their syrup-scented trumpet-blooms. Their weed-
Like vigor cures me of the winter, so
I choose datura. From the racks of seed
I choose some others, too — the hearts that bleed
In spring, the columbine, and these will grow
Not poisonous, just beautiful. These need
A simpler kind of care; such flowers breed
With ease. I need the razor’s edge, and so
I choose datura from the racks of seed.
Surprise — their family, Nightshade, Jimsonweed
And Belladonna visit me. I grow
Accustomed to poisonous beauty, need
Hypnotics causing death or merely greed
For sleep, for nature’s death-defying show.
I chose datura from the racks of seed,
As poisonous and beautiful as need.