Preparing for a villanelle

David giving brief remarks

Hi everyone,

Before I move on I thought some of you might be interested in how I approached the villanelle that I posted a couple of days ago about ants at a picnic.

The word this month is PICNIC and I decided in advance to write my poem as a villanelle. This meant that I would need to identify two words that have a lot of rhyming partners. I encouraged other poets to keep it light and fun this month so I settled on ants as my subject and visualized ants crawling up the legs of chairs and people to reach the picnic table.

Could I identify enough rhyming words for ants and table? If ants were my rhyming refrain and table the rhyme needed for the second line of each stanza, I would need 7 “ants” words and 6 “table” words. I made a list of possibilities.

ants, dance, France, enhance, chance, glance, romance, pants, prance, rants, askance, slants, stance, entrance, chants, and plants. Could I find a use for 7 of these 16?

able, cable, fable, label, Mabel, enable, stable, table. Could I find a use for 6 of these 8? More of a challenge.

The first stanza sets the stage for all that follows. I decided to state my case by declaring:

The problem with a picnic is the ants.
As quickly as the cloth is on the table
You’ll feel the first one crawling up your pants.

I used 2 of my 16 ants rhymes and 1 of my 8 table rhymes. So far so good. But the going got tougher. Ants words that didn’t make much sense in this context included: enhance, askance, slants, stance, and entrance. That only left me 11 “easy” words and I’d already used 2 of them. As for the table rhymes, cable, enable, fable, Mabel, and label were going to be a challenge, leaving me only 3 “good” words and 1 was already gone. I was in trouble already.

That’s how a villanelle works. Even with a clear idea of your subject and with a prepared word list, each new stanza draws from a shrinking pool of words that make sense. Not only that, you have to phrase the first two lines of each stanza so that the refrain line makes sense. In the second stanza my refrain line had to be, “The problem with a picnic is the ants.”

People never really stand a chance.
Food without intruders is a fable.
The problem with a picnic is the ants.

Whew! Got rid of a problem word: fable. But the third stanza loomed with a still smaller pool of words and the need to repeat the refrain line, “You’ll feel the first one crawling up your pants.”

They’ll find you if they have to crawl from France.
No one understands how fast they’re able.
You’ll feel the first one crawling up your pants.

Hooray! I was proud of that first line. It not only used “France” but set up the use of “able” and led logically to the refrain line.

I won’t take you through the rest of the poem but you can see why writing a villanelle can give you the cold sweats as you draw closer to that final stanza and see your list of possibilities shrinking down to an impossible few!

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7 comments on “Preparing for a villanelle

  1. Thanks for this tutorial, David. I love the cleverness of villanelles, but never the idea of getting there was too daunting. It’s still daunting, but with your map I may give one a try.

  2. This is really helpful, David. I enjoyed seeing your thinking as you moved through the poem. Making a word list must help, also, because if there are few, guess you find a better one! Happy Saturday!

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