Poems come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short like blips on a radar screen, provoking a burst of thought in the reader (haiku, for example). Others are long, sweeping songs full of passion, emotion, suffering, and death (Homer’s epics). And many in between tell stories of people, objects, and animals (from Tennyson to e. e. cummings). But few types of poetry leave you as simultaneously stuck and fascinated as the villanelle.
Through repetition and parallel structure, villanelles bring you around and around the same idea or situation until you’re back where you started—sometimes with a new perspective on the topic. This rotation may or may not be cathartic for anxious or indecisive people (oftentimes like myself).
The villanelle as it is known today consists of five rhymed tercets and finishes with a quatrain. Tercets are stanzas composed of three lines, while quatrains are composed of four. However, in the Italian countryside centuries ago, the villanelle was not a fixed form and drew inspiration from the transition of sowing to reaping. You might imagine singing a villanelle while toiling in verdant fields for hours on end. Some would call it torture; others, enlightenment.
But say you want to sit down and write a villanelle. Whether or not you have a background in agriculture, the task can be daunting. Where do you begin?
1. Choose a Concept
Just like crafting a good story, poetry writing usually involves digging and dreaming up a topic. For villanelles in particular, you need to keep your eyes open for positive or negative cycles in the world surrounding you. Consider the opening stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” which offers both harmony and disharmony in one breath.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
On the one hand, readers are faced with the everyday problem of losing, whether that means defeat during a sports game or a loved one’s passing. The matter-of-fact way Bishop comforts readers is ironic. As a poet, she pulls no punches; as a human, she is endearingly empathetic. When selecting a topic, poets need to take both sides of the equation into account. Ponder a perplexing idea or interaction you can’t get out of your head. Because of the villanelle’s repetitive nature, certain subjects will work better than others, but the goal is to build tension.
2. Follow the Form
Once you have a topic, you need to make sure you understand and abide by the rules. The villanelle is quirky because several of its lines recur in a specific order or sequence. In Bishop’s case, she ends each tercet with either the first or third lines of her opening stanza (as seen above) in alternating fashion. This is the major structural standard for writing villanelles. I’ve included the rest of her tercets below, from the second onward.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
With certain themes and scenarios, you won’t necessarily repeat the lines verbatim. You may decide to morph them as the poem unfolds (as in the line “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster”). Although each tercet of Bishop’s poem has a unique character, the rhyme scheme established by the opening stanza (A-B-A) never fluctuates. Your wording can change, but for the sake of preserving the form, the structure should stay relatively the same.
3. Escape the End
Endings are always tricky, no matter what you’re writing, as I’m sure you will agree. Ernest Hemingway revised the end of A Farewell to Arms fifteen or more times before he was satisfied. The same is true for poems. Let’s look at how Bishop ends her villanelle.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
The presence of the em dash signifies a dramatic shift in tone and focus. This is Bishop’s “escape” from the cycle, so to speak. She pauses to address an audience, whether the reader or a personality she has known in her own life, and interrupts the cycle she’s exploring to contemplate a final takeaway. In “One Art,” the theme of appearance vs. reality rises to the fore. The poet declares that, although everyday life may appear disastrous, the reality of little, loving attributes compels one to be honest, and ultimately grateful. We all have these experiences, but everything boils down to “one art.”
Unpacking the Villanelle
Poetry has multiple forms we can experiment with to convey meaning, truth, and experience. But no matter how unusual, unsettling, and heart-wrenching our expression is, it provides a clearer understanding of ourselves and each other. That’s the true purpose of art.
Settling on a topic for your villanelle is the easy part, because we all have stories to tell. The rules, albeit important, can be the real challenge. If you’re looking for other exemplary villanelles to read, “Do Not Go Gently” by Dylan Thomas shows what happens when a poet follows the traditional rules closely. Of course, as Bishop’s poem demonstrates, it’s also okay to occasionally bend one or two rules.
That said, remember how I described villanelles as “enlightening” in my introduction? Although the villanelle doesn’t somehow portray the human experience better than other poetic forms, readers can glean insight and encouragement from it. Life is confusing, and we often don’t have the patience or energy to slow down enough to solve all our problems. One might argue that’s impossible for us as “mere mortals.” But just as we sometimes get trapped in that cycle of angst and self-condemnation, we always have hope of escape. In the realm of art, one is never alone. Perhaps the Italians laboring in their fields believed that too.
Dwelling deep in the forests of New England, Graham spends most of his time reading, taking walks with his dog, and learning new and interesting things (and reveling in cooler, more temperate climates). Born and raised in the Boston area, Graham was homeschooled from an early age. After high school, he proceeded to get a bachelor’s in Literature from Patrick Henry College in Northern Virginia. He currently resides in the Boston area while pursuing a master’s in Education at Gordon College, steeping in the rich history of his home turf and a continued exploration of literature from across the world. He says you should read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, because they are incredible novels. Also, read Robert Frost.