Wednesday, April 27, 2011

NPM: The Hardest Poem

As we approach National Poetry Month's home stretch, we take a look at the most dreaded of all poetic forms: the villanelle.

This is the poet's triple axel. If he can pull it off, he earns his readers' respect and the jealous admiration of his peers. If he does it wrong, he looks like an amateur. The only reason anybody ever writes a villanelle is to impress other people (especially poets), since the form is so unnatural and difficult. I myself have written two (2) villanelles during my lifetime. Neither is very good, and I have not yet been able to muster the courage for a third try.

What is a villanelle, then? Well, it's nineteen lines (preferably in iambic pentameter) adhering to very particular structure and rhyme scheme: five stanzas of three lines followed by a stanza of four lines. The kick is that the first and third line of the first stanza are each repeated three more times throughout the poem in set locations.

Here's what the skeleton looks like:

A (refrain 1)
A (refrain 2)

A (refrain 1)

A (refrain 2)

A (refrain 1)

A (refrain 2)

A (refrain 1)
A (refrain 2)

The limitations such a form imposes should be obvious. Aside from being restricted to only two different vowel sounds for the end rhymes, you have to build a coherent message in which the same two thoughts can naturally repeat themselves with a minimum of awkwardness and monotony. You must even more economical with language than usual -- every other third line is a refrain, giving you only two lines (twenty syllables, usually) to provide new information and segue into the next refrain.

But the villanelle's challenges are commensurate with its potential rewards: if done well, the villanelle form can be used to powerful effect. It somewhat reminds me of those "3D" animated .gifs you sometimes see floating around the Internet. Examples:

As best I can tell, the villanelle does something similar. It takes small, related kernels of and repeats them, repainting them from different angles with each refrain. The piece's thought or theme becomes endowed with a curiously extradimensional vividness.

Don't take my word for it, though. If I knew how the hell these things worked, I'd be better at writing them.

My beat-up copy of The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry tells us that the villanelle first appeared in France during the 16th century, but didn't really start appearing in English verse until the late 19th century. Just to give us an idea of its origin, let's begin with a translated version of one of the earliest extant instances of the form.

By Jean Passerat (1534 - 1602)
(translated from the French by Jay Parini)

I've lost her now, my turtle-dove.
How can that be her song I hear?
I'll follow after my dear love.

You miss someone you really love?
Ah, how I do. She's gone, I fear.
I've lost her, my own turtle-dove.

If your love's as true as God's above,
then so was mine. Is that now clear?
I'll follow after her, my love.

I've heard you sighing for your love.
My own sighs mingle with my tears.
I've lost my only turtle-dove.

So lovely was my darling dove,
none other gives me any cheer.
I'll follow after her, my love.

O death, if you must now reprove me,
Take me: I have lost all fear,
as I have lost my turtle dove.
I must fly after her, my love.

If I Could Tell You
By W.H. Auden (1907 - 1973)

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose all the lions get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The Rapist's Villanelle
By Tom Disch (1940 - 2008)

She spent her money with such perfect style
The clerks would gasp at each new thing she'd choose.
I couldn't help myself: I had to smile

Or bust. Her slender purse was crocodile,
Her blouse was from Bendel's as were her shoes.
She spent her money with such perfect style!

I loved her so! She shopped — and all the while
My soul that bustling image would perfuse.
I couldn't help myself: I had to smile

At her hand-knitted sweater from the Isle
Of Skye, an apr├Ęs-skis of bold chartreuse.
She spent her money with such perfect style.

Enchanted by her, mile on weary mile
I tracked my darling down the avenues.
I couldn't help myself. I had to smile

At how she never once surmised my guile.
My heart was hers — I'd nothing else to lose.
She spent her money with such perfect style
I couldn't help myself. I had to smile.

Divide and Conquer
by Alan Sullivan (1948 - 2010)

The cells divide. The cells that will not die
divide too well and so they multiply.
They kill the host to keep themselves alive.

The blood goes bad. In vain physicians try
to purge the veins with drugs the cells defy.
The cells divide. The cells that will not die

mutate anew. The hardy few survive.
The few recruit the many teeming by.
They kill the host to keep themselves alive.

They colonize the nodes from neck to thigh.
The tumors grow, and scanners never lie.
The cells divide. The cells that will not die

stifle the very organs where they thrive.
Blind, stupid things — their purpose gone awry——
they kill the host to keep themselves alive.

Exploding through the flesh, they multiply,
but immortality eludes them. Why?
The cells divide, the cells that will not die
kill the host to keep themselves alive.

And now! It's time I took a look at these Western Haiku y'all left me and chose a winner. Stare at this until you go insane. I should have one picked out by the time you're finished.

Okay! We're back.

It came down to about four choices out of the fourteen or so you guys posted, but I think I'm gonna have to go with spriteless's:

the creek flooded
 square concrete stones make
soft shapes under it

I also particularly enjoyed Adam and Matt's pieces, and Mr. Sanders's piece about his appetite, but I think spriteless's performs best at what a haiku is supposed to do: capture a wisp of the present moment without any poetic artifice. (On these same grounds, I'd have to put his over the one that I just wrote and posted -- mine indirectly refers to a moment beyond the present, which a haiku isn't supposed to do. Whoops!)

(For the record, I've written dozens of haiku, and only about four are actually any good. Just because it's short don't mean it's easy.)

So spriteless wins a (slightly-used) copy of Final Fantasy III DS and my prized Scaled Wurm Magic: the Gathering card. (Send me an email with your mailing address, if you would please.) But since I am so thrilled that you all participated, hell -- EVERYONE GETS SOMETHING! I still have to figure out exactly what that something is; but if you want it (something), drop me a line telling me which piece was yours and where I can send an envelope.

EDIT: Derp. Mailto links were busted. Fixed now.


  1. Aw, I didn't know about the deadline yesterday and now it's too late. Ah well. I posted my submissions anyway if you want to give them a read.

  2. Love the use of the impossible figure to analogize the villanelle.