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Sometimes when you pick up your pen to write, you are assailed by a haunting thought. A single thought or two, which you feel can form the basis of a beautiful poetry. The central idea of the poem is a single thought but there are so many thoughts which lead from it or boil down to it. At such times, the form that can most beautifully show off your work is a villanelle.
What Is A Villanelle?
Well, Villanelle is a French word, derived from the original word in Italian, villanella. Villanella is believed derived from the Latin villano (farmhand), which is in turn derived from the Latin villa (farm).
It is a verse form consisting of five tercets and a final quatrain, which has only two end rhymes, repeating the first and third lines of the first stanza alternately in the following stanzas, and combining those two refrain lines into the final couplet in the quatrain. A villanelle needs no particular meter or line length. It is a terribly obsessive form of poetry which hinges on a single thought which is repeated through out the poem.
A good example of a villanelle is the following one written by Dylan Thomas titled "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night". It is one of the most famous villanelles and is a great example of how villanelle repetition works. Carefully note the rhyme scheme and the refrains. Using a villanelle is the best and easiest way to explain its structure.
Before we discuss more about the technical aspects of the villanelle lets delve a little into the history of the villanelle.
The word villanelle, or villenesque, was used toward the end of the sixteenth century to describe literary imitations of rustic songs. Such villanelles were alike in exhibiting a refrain which testified to their ultimate popular origin. The villanelle was, in a sense, invented by Jean Passerat (1534-1602) whose poem about a turtle dove is acknowledged as the first modern villanelle. In the nineteenth century, English poets including Oscar Wilde wrote villanelle. More recently, many American and British poets (including Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas) have written Villanelles. Usually they vary the content of the repeated lines, to soften the strict repetition of the traditional form.
The mark of a villanelle, though, is the repetition of the first and third lines throughout the poem. The first line is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and as the penultimate line of the final quatrain. The third line is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, and as the last line of the concluding quatrain (and thus the last line of the poem). Line length, meter, etc. will vary. The meter and length of the line is not part of the form - however, usually the lines are of approximately the same length, whatever the length for a particular villanelle may be. Some poets will vary the repeated lines (see Bishop's "One Art" and others will repeat them exactly each time (which is the norm) or vary only the punctuation.
Form Of A Villanelle
Conventionally a villanelle looks like this.
The refrains in a villanelle do the following:
Specific detail refrains are surprising easier to write the Villanelle too. You will find sentences matching them. The intensity of the detail supplies the connectors to sentence before and after while broad general refrains fit in well and allow the reader to connect to the tercet lines.
The non refrain lines in the poem build upon the theme set by the refrain lines. Villanelle is one form of poetry which makes maximum use of enjambments to smoothen the flow of the poem. Consider this poem by W.H Auden titled 'If I could Tell You'. It is one of my personal favorites in villanelles.
I would say this is one poem which makes very good use of enjambments and end stopped sentences to smoothen the flow of the poem. In fact the refrains change from enjambments to end stopped sentences to keep the flow of the poem smooth. For example Line 1 which is an enjambment changes to an end-stopped sentence at Line 6 as here it is a paragraph ender.
Take for example stanza 5
Each of the lines deal with a different subject and hence could have been end-stopped sentences as they complete a thought. However having them enjambed increases the ease of reading, smoothens the poems and makes it more effective.
To better understand this, see the poem after deleting all the refrain lines, it would look like this:
These are not exactly independent thoughts but beautiful justifications or support system for the refrain lines. The refrain would collapse without them.
Writing a villanelle
It is important to know which thoughts can be converted into a villanelle and which can't be. To write a good villanelle you need to have a solid base to make the refrain and enough thoughts to lead into the refrain.
The repetition in a Villanelle made this form popular with audiences. The repetition allowed the listener to catch the poem more clearly at first hearing or first reading.
I would suggest using a blank form to write your villanelle in the beginning. Frame your central thought and write them as two refrains and then write down your refrains in a paper.
Make sure that the refrains read well consecutively as they would form the last two lines of your poetry. Once you have your refrains down, start adding the lines that build upon them. Make sure that the rhyming and the refrains don't sound forced, it should sound natural and flow.
A system I use when writing a villanelle is picking a villanelle and superimposing my villanelle on it line by line. This way I don't loose track of the rhyming technique and the refrains.
Villanelles are a rich form of poetry and have many variation like the decanelle and terzanelle.
Many modern poets also uses slight modifications in the refrains and rhyming scheme to make it easier but a traditional villanelle is a delight to read and write once you get the hang of it. It can be a challenge and the first few villanelles you write may be pitifully lacking but keep at it and after a few false tries you will get there.Image (c) Gettyimges.com
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