Friday, November 18, 2011


Reading Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled at the moment, and in particular the chapter on Villanelles. 

The Villanelle is a bit akin to a Sudoku, or a Cryptic Crossword: everything has to fit or it falls apart.  It's a form, and a quite specific one at that.  There are five stanzas of three lines each, and the sixth stanza has an extra line. 

The first and third lines of the first stanza get repeated alternately at the end of the subsequent stanzas and then both appear in the last stanza.  They have to rhyme.  The end word of the middle line in each stanza rhymes (with a different rhyme sound).   In the last stanza the first line rhymes with the very first line of the poem, the second line rhymes with the second line of the poem, and then we have the two repeated lines.   It sounds more complicated than it is.   Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night is a well-known poem than many people don't realise is a fine example of a Villanelle. 

This wonderful poem by Elizabeth Bishop is also a Villanelle, though by running over the second line in some cases she takes slight liberties with the form.    The poem becomes increasingly moving as it goes on; the last line is exceptionally so.

One Art

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,

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 beloved 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.

-- 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!) a disaster.

From Bishop’s last book of poems, Geography III 

I've just had a play with the form, and produced the following bit of nonsense....which I'm sure can be improved.   It's a start, however!  I also play a little with the second repeat line; using rhymes that are similar in sound may not be the wisest move, although it was interesting to do.

Perhaps it’s not the prime of every poet’s dream,
Though I myself am fairly keen
To aspire to a villanellic scheme.

So I won’t wait for the Muse’s beam
But try somehow the rhymes to glean;
Perhaps it’s not the prime of every poet’s dream.

I thought at first that I might seem
To be a Villanelle machine;
As I aspired to a villanelley scheme.

I’d vie with the Cream of the Poetic Team,
Sharpen my tools to the finest sheen;
Perhaps it’s not the prime of every poet’s dream.

Of Villanelles I’d write a ream,
Of Villanelles become the Dean -
Still aspiring to a villanelleful scheme.

While fame and fortune wildly gleam
Villanellistically I’m still green;
Perhaps it’s not the prime of every poet’s dream,
Aspiring to a villanellistic scheme. 

Mike Crowl Nov 2011