Monday 17 August 2015

Two Villanelles

It's time for a poem - or two. Let's make them villanelles.
 The villanelle is a rigorous fixed verse form of five tercets and a quatrain following a strict pattern of rhymes and repeat rhymes. The poets of the 1890s used to enjoy writing fancy, essentially empty villanelles - thereby getting the form a generally bad reputation with the next generation. However, the villanelle was a form that never quite went away, and lived to thrive again - perhaps because its technical challenges are both demanding and liberating (from the limitations of direct, informal 'self-expression').
 Perhaps the best-known villanelle of the 20th century is Dylan Thomas's much (far too much) quoted Do Not Go Gentle... But there is also Elizabeth Bishop's One Art, a fine example of the punch a villanelle, in the right hands, can pack - and of how elegantly its challenges can be surmounted and disguised:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practise losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, 
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
And here's one, equally accomplished and potent, by the quietly great Donald Justice:
Villanelle at Sundown

Turn your head. Look. The light is turning yellow.
The river seems enriched thereby, not to say deepened.
Why this is, I'll never be able to tell you.

Or are Americans half in love with failure?
One used to say so, reading Fitzgerald, as it happened.
(That Viking Portable, all water spotted and yellow--

remember?) Or does mere distance lend a value
to things? --false, it may be, but the view is hardly cheapened.
Why this is, I'll never be able to tell you.

The smoke, those tiny cars, the whole urban millieu--
One can like anything diminishment has sharpened.
Our painter friend, Lang, might show the whole thing yellow

and not be much off. It's nuance that counts, not color--
As in some late James novel, saved up for the long weekend
and vivid with all the Master simply won't tell you.

How frail our generation has got, how sallow
and pinched with just surviving! We all go off the deep end
finally, gold beaten thinly out to yellow.
And why this is, I'll never be able to tell you. 

Helpfully, the Poetry Foundation website lists the subjects of Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle as 'Living, Disappointment and Failure' (and, as occasion for its use, 'Funeral' - not mine, thanks). No doubt Justice's could be similarly reduced (at the loss of almost everything it is) - and yet, how different it is in feeling from Bishop's work. Justice's acceptance of how things are and how they end is so deeply embedded in all his work, so easy and so natural - even within the tight confines of the villanelle. 'We all go off the deep end/ finally, gold beaten thinly out to yellow...'



  1. I much prefer the Bishop (and thanks for that Nige) because it adheres better to the whole point and raison d’être of a villanelle – it’s discipline. Justice’s rhymes are just too loose. I loved weekend/deep end and I can take yellow/tell you and sallow/yellow but failure/yellow, milieu/yellow and colour/yellow are stretching a point too far. Guess I’m too much of a stickler. There’s a dichotomy in choosing to submit oneself to poetic form and then watering down its discipline so much that one has to ask why you chose the submission in the first place. The whole joy is the expectation of how the next rhyme will emerge. When its only about a quarter or an eighth rhyme, and a rhyme that only one’s awareness that the poem is a villanelle tells you is supposed to be a rhyme at all, one feels cheated or does not even notice that its occurred at all. The gesture towards the form is just too casual. Yeah, a right old stick in the mud eh?

  2. Harsh, Guy! Is the discipline itself the whole point? That would take us back to the vapid exercises of the 1890s, wouldn't it? I'd say the point is rather to transcend the form while - more or less - adhering to it, so that the reader can reach the end before realising Hey, this is a Villanelle! A few partial rhymes are fine by me, so long as the pattern - and the repetitions - are intact.

  3. Told you I was a stickler. As you say Nige -"its technical challenges are both demanding and liberating" but if one sidesteps them to that extent is one liberated? A moot point certainly.