The villanelle

Hi everyone,

Just finished work on a new poem framed as a villanelle. I love writing those things! They are a challenge for sure but oh so worth it when they work. I can’t show you the new one but here’s an example of another I wrote a couple of years ago about a pig.

The Feisty Pig of France

The feisty pig of France is prone to root
In search of buried fungus called the truffle.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.

Farmer tries to train the spry galoot
To snout the fungus out by sniff and snuffle.
The feisty pig of France is prone to root.

Farmer can’t control the greedy brute.
The pig will dig and fill a gallon duffel.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.

When farmer yells, he doesn’t give a hoot.
He swings his derriere in a shuffle.
The feisty pig of France is prone to root.

Sometimes the farmer prods him with a boot,
But swine hide is much too tough to ruffle.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.

The pig is much too valuable to shoot
And farmer knows he’d lose if they should scuffle.
The feisty pig of France is prone to root.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.

— David L. Harrison

The form expects us to compose five stanzas of three lines and a final one of four. There are only two rhymes in all. In stanza one, the 1st and 3rd lines alternate as the third line in each succeeding stanza until the last and in it they come together as the final two lines.

You don’t want to begin a villanelle unless you’ve checked how many words rhyme with the two you’ve selected. They’ll be repeated six times each. In the poem I just finished I began with lists of 13 and 17 rhyming words but just barely managed to find six each that made sense with what I was writing about.

A villanelle must flow naturally with nothing forced. The third line of each tercet, being a repeat of one of the lines in the first stanza, must make a logical statement about that stanza. That may be the hardest challenge of all.

If you haven’t tried one of these before, take some time before long to attempt one. It’s truly an example of Frost’s statement that a poem is a word game.

David

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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!

About the villanelle

Hi everyone,

Yesterday I posted my July Word of the Month poem and cast it in the rigid form called villanelle. For those who are unfamiliar with its requirements and history, here’s a bit of background.

The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets (3-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (4-line stanza). The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines.

The form originated hundreds of years ago in France but has become increasingly popular among poets writing in English. An often quoted example is Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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.

I’ve had fun with this form before and enjoy creating humor even while abiding by humorless rules. Some of you may remember this one that has been previously published here and elsewhere.

The Feisty Pig of France
By David L. Harrison

The feisty pig of France is prone to root
In search of buried fungus called the truffle.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.

Farmer tries to train the spry galoot
To snout the fungus out by sniff and snuffle.
The feisty pig of France is prone to root.

Farmer can’t control the greedy brute.
The pig will dig and fill a gallon duffel.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.

When farmer yells, he doesn’t give a hoot.
He swings his derriere in a shuffle.
The feisty pig of France is prone to root.

Sometimes the farmer prods him with a boot,
But swine hide is much too tough to ruffle.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.

The pig is much too valuable to shoot
And farmer knows he’d lose if they should scuffle.
The feisty pig of France is prone to root.
The problem is he likes to eat the loot.