Sonnets and haiku may outrank the villanelle in popularity, but in the anthology, Villanelle, editors Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali have shown us how this somewhat rigid form can be equally versatile in tone, style, and subject matter.
For example, “The House On The Hill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson begins conversationally with “They are all gone away,/ The House is shut and still,/ There is nothing more to say,” whereas James Joyce uses a more formal voice in “A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man,” which begins, “Are you not weary of ardent ways,/ Lure of the fallen seraphim?/ Tell no more of enchanted days.”
Subject matter also varies greatly in the villanelle. For example, in the “Villanelle Of Ye Young Poet’s First Villanelle To His Ladye And Ye Difficulties Thereof,” Eugene O’Neill writes, “To sing the charms of Rosabelle,/ To pour my soul out at her feet,/ I try to write this villanelle.” That lively poem contrasts with the heaviness of “Missing Dates” by William Empson which begins with these menacing lines, “Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills./ It is not the effort nor the failure tires./ The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.”
Since my introduction to Empson’s poem came while listening to cassettes of poets reading poetry when I was flat on my back, I can’t say it’s a favorite, but “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke is: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow./ I feel my fate in what I cannot fear./ I learn by going where I have to go.”
The trick of a villanelle, of course, comes in choosing two rhymes – a and b – with lots of true or slant rhyming possibilities and also in finding two lines worth repeating throughout the 19 lines. At least that’s where I start when writing a villanelle, but rumor has it that my favorite villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” came about as Dylan Thomas sat by the bedside of his dying father.
While his own emotions most likely ran rampant, Thomas reined in his thoughts and feelings by writing a villanelle in traditional form, alternating lines 1 and 3 from the first verse throughout the poem before bringing them in the last two memorable lines of the final verse: “And you, my father, there on the sad height,/ Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray./ Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Like many other villanelles, that poem mainly uses iambic pentameter aka five feet of iambs, which consist of two syllables with the accent on the second. Edwin Arlington Robinson’s villanelle above, however, had three feet per line (trimeter), whereas another poem in this anthology has seven – give or take one or two!
In “Song,” Quincy Troupe writes “words & sounds that build bridges towards a new tongue/ within the vortex of cadences, magic weaves there/ a mystery, syncopating music rising from breath of the young.” The third verse gives a glimpse of the poet’s intent in “…lace the language like fireflies stitching the night’s lungs,/ rhythms of new speech reinventing themselves with a flair,/ a mystery, syncopating music, rising from breath of the young.”
This breath of fresh youth airing out and in the villanelle keeps poets experimenting and playing with the form or, perhaps, as editor-poet Annie Finch suggests, keeps us dancing and romancing. As she writes, “With its roots in dance, a good villanelle is like a good romantic relationship. The two lines that structure it are dying to get together; there is a period of suspense before they do get together; and in the meantime, a changing context provides a series of new discoveries about the lines each time they appear. The form keeps the lines close but apart through six stanzas of mounting tension until they join in the last two lines of the poem.”
As an intricate dance, a romantic encounter, a magical weave, a chance to rant in the face of death, a humorous look at our culture, or an old-fashioned occasion to sing the charms of love, the villanelle has at last been beautifully anthologized in this long-awaited book.