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How to Write a Villanelle

What is a Villanelle?
How do we know a Villanelle when we see one?
How do we write a Villanelle?
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Well, it’s definitely one of my favorite poetic formats… The Villanelle’s lyrical repetitions make the poem sing to me? All right, so now we know it’s a specific form of poetry, but what makes it unique?

There are three relevant considerations to bear in mind when composing a Villanelle, like any form of structured poetry. Those elements are: (a) Theme Development, (b) Rhyme Scheme and (c) Meter. All are equally important to the successful completion of a formatted poem.

It’s extremely important to spend time thinking about and planning how to develop a poetic theme. A Villanelle is comprised of nineteen very specific lines, so the theme needs to be one that can both develop and culminate within that structure, preferably without seeming forced. Eight of the lines are repeated throughout the poem, which means that they must also be lines constructed in a way that is general enough to allow the effective development of the theme in spite of the repetitions. Actually, the more thoroughly the theme is planned, the more natural the end result will flow.

Most people can recognize a basic poetic rhyme scheme, but let’s do a quick synopsis as a reminder. Simply assign each successive rhyming line’s end word with the same letter (in alphabetical order) throughout the poem.

For example – Look at Michael Mack’s Villanelle,

The Enemy

I see him calmly standing there – (a)
So confident and void of fear – (b)
Mocking me with icy stare – (a)

Unable to escape his stare – (a)
Of confidence combined with leer – (b)
I see him calmly standing there. – (a)

Sarcastic monster! How he dare – (a)
To criticize my weak veneer – (b)
Mocking me with icy stare. – (a)

Remindful of an old nightmare – (a)
Recurrent in my early years – (b)
I see him calmly standing there. – (a)

Fiend from darkness! How he bares – (a)
My soul with evil grin so queer – (b)
Mocking me with icy stare. – (a)

I strike at him with hatred bare! – (a)
But, through the shattered cracks of mirror, – (b)
I see him calmly standing there – (a)
Mocking me with icy stare – (a)

We can clearly discern a specific rhyme scheme of
a-b-a/a-b-a/a-b-a/a-b-a/a-b-a/a-b-a-a…

Mike also adheres strongly to specific meter in his work. His poems are excellent examples of poetic meter, as he is very consistent about maintaining it throughout his poetry. In this villanelle, his pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within each line of verse is written in iambic tetrameter (four poetic feet per line).

In reading these lines a few times – along with the rest of the poem, we can feel the rhythm of the iambic (unstressed-STRESSED) pattern in each line.

i-SEE/him-CALM/ly-STAND/ing-THERE
so-CON/fi-DENT/and-VOID/of-FEAR

(-/-/-/-/)

If either element, rhyme scheme or meter, is not intact, a poem can seem to be "forced" to rhyme. Conversely, with both properly in tune, the lines will hum like a symphony. Those who critique rhymed poetry as too forced for their liking rarely realize that it’s actually the meter that they should be protesting.

I personally find it easiest to begin my villanelle at the end – the final quatrain, that’s four lines of verse, written with a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-a – This stanza will eventually evolve into the culmination of the Villanelle – So consider the theme carefully, and plan upon the third and fourth lines being repeated throughout the final poem. The last lines of this quatrain will later become the first lines of the poem – so we’ll have to make it a good one (one that states our theme).

There are no stipulations as to the meter of a Villanelle, but we’ll have a better overall effect if we’re consistent – Meter is fairly easy to smooth out by nipping and tucking syllables, so we’ll make it our second priority – not the first. We do have to be consistent about the number of syllables that we use in each line, however. That will make it easier edit, and to give the poem a specified meter.

NEXT STEP – Setting up the poem in format…

The format of a villanelle is a very specific repetition of two lines, with two other alternating rhymed lines incorporated as well.

The format is:
a1-b-a2/a-b-a1/a-b-a2/a-b-a1/a-b-a2/a-b-a1-a2

We have five tercets (three-line stanzas)with a-b-a rhyme schemes and a final quatrain with an a-b-a-a scheme.

The last two lines of the quatrain, a1 and a2 will be plugged in as indicated – The rest isn’t as simple as you might think – We ALWAYS have to consider how we’re developing our THEME. Then, we have to maintain our METER – and come up with some good lines that will accomplish both, and still rhyme as I’ve indicated. Oh – and the end result has to sound like it was just the simplest thing you’ve ever written….

We may find ourselves wanting to make some fundamental changes at this point – That’s normal. For instance, the first two lines of the last quatrain may just fit better in another stanza before we’re through.

Another important point is whether or not to repeat the lines exactly. There are two schools of thought on this point. Traditionalists adhere to the concept that lines must always be repeated verbatim. The more liberal viewpoint is that some minor alterations in line content can be allowed for the enhancement of the theme development.

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