Wednesday, May 12, 2021

In which the author attempts to write a villanelle

A villanelle, in case you have never heard of one, is a type of poem. Specifically, it is a poem made up of 19 lines arranged into five tercets (3-line stanzas) and a final quatrain (4-line stanza). The ends of lines are rhymed in the following way, where 'a' represents one set of rhymes and 'b' represents another:

aba aba aba aba aba abaa

But that alone does not make it a villanelle. There's more.

All of line 1 is repeated word for word as line 6, line 12, and line 18. All of line 3 is repeated word for word as line 9, line 15, and line 19.

Easy-peasy, right? Simple as falling off a log.

In a word, no.

The best-known villanelle ever written is probably "Do not go gentle into that good night" by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953):

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.

Here is another villanelle, "The House on the Hill" by an earlier poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935):

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

You may note that the lines in the first poem are longer than the lines in the second one. There is no hard and fast rule about line length in a villanelle. Robinson used iambic trimeter; Thomas used iambic pentameter.

So anyway, friends, I threw caution to the winds this week and tried to write a villanelle of my own. Writing one sounds very hard to do, but actually trying to write one is even harder than it sounds. My poem looks incomplete, but I'm thinking of leaving it as is and calling it "Villanelle, Unfinished":

Who plucks a rose will know the prick of thorn.
Along with pleasure, one encounters pain.
Sometimes one wishes one had not been born.

No flock is fleeced till every sheep is shorn,
And those in charge regard all with disdain.
Who plucks a rose will know the prick of thorn.

The midnight calmly waits for coming morn,
The victims bide their time and live with pain;
Sometimes one wishes one had not been born.

...forlorn
...remain
Who plucks a rose will know the prick of thorn.

...torn
...contain
Sometimes one wishes one had not been born.

...adorn
...explain
Who plucks a rose will know the prick of thorn.
Sometimes one wishes one had not been born.

Any and all suggestions you might have (including throwing it away) will be graciously received, even though no poem was ever written by a committee. Having said that, I am reminded of having read the following also:

1. A camel is a horse put together by a committee.

2. A committee is a group of people, none of whom can make it on Thursday.

I must tell you before ending this post that today would have been the 115th birthday of Clifford Ray "Ted" Brague, who was born in Tomah, Monroe County, Wisconsin in 1906. He was the man who raised me, my Dad, though not my bio-Dad. I do not think of him as my stepfather. He is the only father I ever knew. His name is on my birth certificate although he is not my biological father. His name was put on my birth certificate when I was 5 or 6, although he didn't adopt me legally that I am aware of. I did not like living under his authority. I feared him greatly. I hated him for a long time because of the way he treated my mother and the way he treated me. I suppose he was a good man doing the best he could, but he had many flaws, as do we all. I have forgiven him. It is water under the bridge.

Trying to describe the relationship between my mother and my father brings to mind something Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1808:

O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!

There is no connection between my villanelle and my relationship with my Dad as far as I know, although a psychiatrist might believe otherwise. I do find it interesting, however, given my history, that the villanelles by Dylan Thomas and Edwin Arlington Robinson became two of my favorite poems.

If someone ever thinks I need to be placed in a lunatic asylum (which phrase is no longer politically correct), this post might actually serve as evidence.

10 comments:

  1. I was not familiar with House on the Hill but I like it. Is it also a requirement that a villanelle be dark and gloomy? All three make me sad.

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  2. Emma, as far as I know, dark and gloomy is not a requirement!

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  3. A villanelle has an interesting rhyme scheme. It reminds me of a Pantoum poem, if you are familiar with that style. I think it can be fun to write in the pattern. I wonder if possibly there could be a connection between your villanelle and your relationship with your father? It seems possible but I am no specialist. I hope you are well and your daughter is doing good despite her treatments.

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    Replies
    1. Bonnie, you are right about the similarities between a villanelle and a pantoum. Both of them are difficult to compose to my way of thinking because of the unyielding attention one has to pay to form. I’m more of a content-oriented writer. Our daughter is doing relatively fabulously considering the circumstances.

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  4. Interesting! I remember reading the first one, but I don't think I have heard the second one. Your poem makes me a little sad though. Hope you are doing ok.

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  5. Kathy, you are “a little sad” and Emma wonders if it is a requirement that a villanelle be dark and gloomy. I think I should avoid them in the future as I don’t want my writing to have that effect on my readers!

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    Replies
    1. No, please keep writing!
      I was just worried that you. The poem talks about pain and sometimes wishing one hadn't been born.

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  6. Kathy, I will definitely keep writing, though maybe not villanelles as they are very difficult to write! You needn’t worry; I am not suicidal in the least. I do think, though, that many people wish at one time or another during their lives that they had never been born. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that. I hope so.

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  7. I had never heard of a villanelle although I am very familiar with the Dylan Thomas work although I've never been sure that, after decades or reading it, I yet understand it fully.

    I hope that it is a compliment when I say that I can, I think both understand yours, and enjoy it for what it is....unfinished. I have written stories at school that left people hanging in the air and was not complimented on the genre by my teacher.

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  8. Graham, thank you. You are very kind. I want to finish it, but it may prove too difficult for my feeble brain. I know it will take great effort and concentration on my part, perhaps more than I am willing to spend.

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