Tag Archives: Poetic Form

All Hail the Villanelle

I attended a Poem City workshop today on the Villanelle that was run by writer Samantha Kolber. This structured poem has its roots in peasant dance songs. The form is at once both deceptively simple and complicated.

Simple because there are just two rhyming sounds and there are repeated sentences throughout. So just write a couple of lines down and the poem’s already half done!

But complicated because the challenge lies in using that formal repetition to effectively build tension and so on. The sentences should have a connection that comes out more fully through the progression of the poem; maybe even seeming wholly unconnected at first.

One of the best, and best know examples of the form, is the famous poem by Dylan ThomasDo not go gentle into that good night.”

My ten-minute workshop stab at it, along with thoughts about its on-the-fly creation:

———————–

GRAVITY KEEPS ON HOLDING ME DOWN

Gravity keeps on holding me down.
I stare at the clouds so white, so soft.
There is blood on the ground.

I try to think thoughts profound
as I try to raise myself aloft.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.

In my thoughts I only drown;
my skin wrinkled and hard, never soft.
There is blood on the ground.

I listen for some sense, some sound
other than war pigs feeding at the trough.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.

The indifferent world goes round and round
as I start to shake and cough.
There is blood on the ground.

My life has become a smileless frown
that unremarkable day when my gun went off.
Gravity keeps on holding me down.
There is blood on the ground.
—————————–

The traditional structure, which I follow above, has six stanzas. The first stanza introduces the two repeated sentences with their end word rhyming. They bookend a line with the only other rhyming sound in the poem. The next four stanzas call out the repeated sentences on an alternating basis (like melody and chorus), using the rhyme of the repeated sentences plus the second rhyme, until they are brought back together in the last stanza, evoking what is hopefully a somewhat new (or at least more vivid) image.

Visually, the pattern is:

A1 (repeated sentence #1)
b (second rhyme)
A2 (repeated sentence #2)

a (rhymes with A1 and A2)
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1

a
b
A2

a
b
A1
A2

I thought of the repeated lines first, A1 and A2, thinking of the dual meaning of gravity, both as the  physical force and also as seriousness, especially with respect to grief. I soon had a vision of a gun going off, though I was thinking more of it being an accident.

For better or verse, “off” isn’t that friendly of a rhyme word. So I wrote down options — cough, aloft, soft, off, trough – and went with them.

Not easy to think of a way to use trough, but I did like the earthiness of animals tromping on the ground, thinking it a good compliment to the repeated line Gravity keeps on holding me down, so I wrote pigs feeding at the trough. Which didn’t quite fit how I wanted.

But we had been talking about Norwich University earlier along with war, so war pigs came naturally to mine (and also Black Sabbath, incidentally, as a tangential note). I think that single word makes the line fit a lot better into the scheme, though it changes in my eyes the firing, like maybe it’s not accidental.

Still, accidental firing or not, the poem seems to retain the same high-level of guilt of the shooter, which is the primary image i was wanting to capture.