Terrible Tuesday: A Poetry Lesson on the Villanelle

Greetings, folks!  Since I’m just starting Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, I won’t have any review for a bit.  Certainly, I could write down some thoughts on other books or share an essay, but I thought I’d do something different.  So many people are nervous when it comes to the idea of writing poetry, especially when trying to write in a form.  I’m going to try to disarm that fear.

Now, I’m not exactly a bomb defusal expert, but I’m going to work gradually, cutting each wire of your fear.  I’d like to invite you to give the villanelle a chance at the end of this post, and I’m going to prepare you to write one.  Join me after the jump!!  Now, now, don’t look as excited as Mr. Thomas up there.

By definition

villanelle (also known as villanesque) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. – Wikipedia

All this means is that a villanelle is a poem of 19 lines.  The lines are divided into stanzas.  Each stanza has 3 lines (a tercet), and the poem concludes with a quatrain (4 lines). That is, there are five tercets and one quatrain.  The overall form repeats two rhymes, and the form also includes two refrains.  Now, this might sound awfully confusing, so let’s look at an example.

Let’s take a look at a classic villanelle written by Mr. Excitement himself, Dylan Thomas–“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”

“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,      Refrain 1 (A1)

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;       b

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.          Refrain 2 (A2)


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,                (a)

Because their words had forked no lightning they     (b)

Do not go gentle into that good night.     (A1)


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright      (a)

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,      (b)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.                 (A2)


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,      (a)

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,      (b)

Do not go gentle into that good night.      (A1)


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight      (a)

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,      (b)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.                            (A2)


And you, my father, there on that sad height,      (a)

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.      (b)

Do not go gentle into that good night.      (A1)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.      (A2)

Now, the first thing to notice is the rhyme scheme and the use of the refrains. If writing a villanelle, be sure to pick a good word with a lot of near rhymes, as it’ll be with you for quite a while.  The entire poem follows a constant aba rhyme scheme until the final stanza, which ends abaa.  Notice, also, the use of the refrain.  The refrain creates a sense of obsession and compulsion.

So the big question is “what can we learn as poets and readers of poetry?”

Well, we can learn a few things:

  • Use the form to your advantage.  Thomas takes advantage of the cyclical cycle of the villanelle to describe cycles of day and night.  The recurring quality also suggests his grief at the loss of his father.  The cycle of night and day is a reminder.  The best of men must die, but Thomas encourages a fight until the end.  The cyclical form is a reminder that the struggle is ongoing.
  • Use alliteration for emphasis.  The speaker exemplifies how dead men use their remaining to fight death, placing emphasis on these lines.  See lines 13-14: blinding, blind, blaze, be).  Attention is drawn to the men, how  they “blaze like meteors” instead of dying like a suffocated flame.
  • Pacing.  The speaker saves the reveal that the person addressed is his father until the end, surprising the reader with his personal stake in the poem.  The final stanza is far more emotional, as the speaker begs his father to cry out, which would be a blessing and a curse.  Ultimately, the speaker urges his father to fight death.
  • Diction, syntax, rhythm.  Thomas uses harsher consonants that make for a more intense rhythm (i.e. gentle v. gently).  Use diction to your advantage.  Consider your theme and tone during the writing process and utilize diction, syntax, and rhythm to emphasize it.
  • Forms are not absolute. Villanelles are often written in iambic pentameter, but not always.  Other poets use tetrameter, but Thomas uses iambic pentameter, possibly a reflection of the cyclical nature of the villanelle — up and down.  On the second refrain, notice Thomas’ use of the spondee (two strong syllables): “Rage, rage…”  Thomas draws attention to the line, of course, but he also fights the form.

A note on iambic pentameter.

For me, the easiest way to learn iambic pentameter was to think of a drum: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.  That is, the da is an unstressed syllable, the DUM a stressed syllable.  While it can be difficult to get the hang of, it sometimes helps to read the poem aloud.  Let’s take a look at the first tercet.

If we look at the first tercet of the poem, we see the following:

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.30.37 PM

Now, when we see “iambic pentameter,” we know two things.  We know that the poem is going to contain a lot of iambs (a set of unstressed and stressed syllables), and that the poem will be written in pentameter (each line contains five “feet.”)

So let’s break the poem into its five feet.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.30.42 PM

Now, we can see how the lines are each broken up into five feet of two syllables each.  Now, let’s add the unstressed and stressed syllables to the first line.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.30.46 PM

Of course, poetry has its own ways to mark these stressed and unstressed syllables.   We use the following symbols, placed above the line:

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.36.18 PM

It’s interesting to see how the unstressed symbol looks flexible, soft.  The stressed syllable is stressed out–rigid, and stiff.

So let’s add these in to the first line.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.54.48 PM

Notice the da-DUM pattern of unstressed and stressed.  Reading the poem, you should be able to hear the up and down rhythm of the syllables.

And there you have it! That pattern repeats throughout the poem with one exception–the second refrain, which begins “Rage, rage.”  So let’s compare:

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.55.24 PM

The rest of that second refrain is in pentameter, but read aloud “do not” and “Rage, rage.”  Notice how “rage rage” is a repetition of two strong sounding syllables that force you to take a moment to feel their impact.  Thomas does something very clever here, urging his father to fight death, and here we are floating for a moment, suspended in time, before we continue.

You’re now quite prepared to write your own villanelle.  Experiment with forms–try to write a standard villanelle, but then try to make it your own.  Adopt some of the techniques Thomas utilized, but also feel free to bring in elements from other poetic forms.

I hope this has been enjoyable and informative.  I’d love to read any villanelles you guys come up with, and, of course, I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.

Best wishes and thanks for reading.


One thought on “Terrible Tuesday: A Poetry Lesson on the Villanelle

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