Poetry in Form: The Villanelle

#NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompts

Michele Sharpe
3 min readApr 10, 2021


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Photo of datura blossom by saikat das from Pexels

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…



Michele Sharpe

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com