Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tuesday Villanelle

The Villanelle: A 19 line poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, two rhyme sounds and two refrains at specified intervals.

That’s a lot of rules to take in. I always find it easier to read an example of the form first, and work back to the rules from there. Why not listen to Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ and see how lines one and three recur throughout and make up the final couplet.

Here are some more good examples of the form:
'The Waking' by Theodore Roethke
'Villanelle of change' by Edwin Arlington Washington
'Mad girl's love song' by Sylvia Plath

If you want to read my attempt at a villanelle, you can scroll down, but I don't think it's fair to place it so close to successful poems.  This is the third week I’ve tried out a new poetic form. First it was the triolet (another form strong on refrains and limited rhymes), and last week it was the sparser cinquain. It just so happens that this month of public poetic experimentation coincides with an utter dearth of inspiration on my part. I’ve been thinking about the villanelle for two weeks now, keeping my ears peeled for useful lines, but as I sat down to write this weekend I had diddly squat.

I tried some automatic writing, but became bogged down in my hatred of agapanthus. (I thought for a moment I could start a villanelle with ‘The berms are strewn with agapanthus dying’, but failed to find a second line...).

Next I wrote out a poem by a well known NZ poet and inserted my own lines between each of the existing ones.  Then I removed the originals. This exercised netted me one line that seemed to have potential (‘How easily we slip into familiar modes’), which I managed to finagle into my first villanelle. It was not good enough to share, but here’s the final quatrain:
Count up all of the unexplored roads
And weigh this against the life you've led:
How easily we to slip into familiar modes
When we are dressed in comfortable clothes.
This line about comfortable clothes reminded me of a poem I had written previously as part of a sequence based on Hamlet’s soliloquies.  I'd used Google translate to mangle the lines and remade poems based on the best mistranslations. In one Hamlet was a union rep speaking at a rally; another a real estate agent. I turned the soliloquy that begins "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt," into ‘Hamlet at the Graduation’ – with Hamlet playing the role of successful alum delivering an inspirational speech at a school prizegiving.  The last two lines were:
Cling to life, but die before entering the hospital,
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe!
Hmm, I thought, having bashed out the familiar modes/comfortable clothes villanelle, perhaps I could turn this trust your wardrobe shtick into a proper villanelle?

Hamlet at the Graduation

Scholars, I bring you lessons from around the globe:
cling to life, but die before entering the ward,
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe!

He who limits weakness and like a claustrophobe
veers little from his strengths will not be adored,
scholars: I bring you lessons from around the globe!

As melt is to thaw, so will joy explode
from the many rocky places it is stored,
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe

to ward off the heavy brown envelope
of a working life that you can ill afford—
scholars, I bring you lessons from around the globe.

Can the fear of God but keep the faith of Job,
let the lamb loose on lands unexplored
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe.

Throw bread and the sun's light will strobe
with singing birds. This is knowledge I have clawed,
Scholars, I bring you lessons from around the globe:
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe!
I don’t know yet if I prefer this version to my original (which I can't divulge as it's currently submitted for publication elsewhere…), but I’ll let the above stand as my April villanelle.

Before I get to the pros and cons of this specific form, it's worth pointing out a general perk of rigid poetic forms and public experimentation (not to mention automatic writing, the fill-in-the-gaps exercise and not being afraid of bastardising your own work) is you can produce something while in a creative funk.  You don't have to wait for inspiration to hit, just for the work day to end, the dishes to be washed, and your laptop to boot up.

Villanelle summary
1. The blank page is less frightening. As with the triolet, once you have your refrain lines sorted, it helps to guide your decision making.
2. As Mark E. Smith puts it: “The 3 R’s: repetition, repetition, repetition.” If you can pull it off, (see examples listed above), it’s powerful, memorable and
3. Cachet. My cynical point for the week: unlike with the cinquain, I suspect doors will open for a villanelle because it’s different enough but well patronised.
1. The risk of thudding – in terms of rhythm, constantly ending the tercets with the same rhyme sound (and one of two lines) can easily become tedious.
2. Perhaps not a con but a question: does it need the restricted rhyme scheme? When I went back and read Geoff Cochrane’s ‘The Lichgate’ again (one of the poems that ushered me towards these formal experiments) I noticed he doesn’t stick to the villanelles rhyme scheme. In fact, only the refrains rhyme. Is it any less of a poem? I sure liked it.
3. The converse of cachet: if you don’t quite pull it off, I suspect you look like a massive try hard.

Footnote: I know the 'suits of woe' line doesn't come from the 'too too solid flesh' soliloquy (it precedes it by a mere 50 lines...) but the image was too good to pass up posting.

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