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Old 01-04-2002, 09:08 AM
graywyvern graywyvern is offline
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i was wondering, why do people keep trying to write
the villainous villanelle? i don't know of a
poetic form with a lower success rate--even the halfway
decent ones can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

[This message has been edited by graywyvern (edited January 09, 2002).]
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Old 01-04-2002, 11:30 AM
David Mason David Mason is offline
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Not ever having written a passable villanelle, I'm not sure I'm the person to answer this. But I think people keep trying in part because, if successful, they'll create a helluva poem. Think of the marvelous villanelles by Robinson, Kees, Thomas, Auden, Bishop and Roethke, and you'll see that it's worth making an attempt.

The problem, of course, is that it's hard to write a poem in English of 19 lines that uses only two rhymes, it's hard to make that poem build or change from stanza to stanza and come to a sense of culmination, and it's hard to write one line worth repeating, let alone two. So yes, most villanelles, even most published villanelles, are quite bad.

I also suspect that, like the sestina, the villanelle has become one of those forms that creative writing teachers assign because they think their kids can do it--hey, once you've got the refrains, look how few lines you've got left to write! But it won't work without emphatic meter, which takes much training these days, and it won't work without an intelligent appraisal of the strengths and limitations of the form itself.
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Old 01-07-2002, 01:42 AM
Susan Vaughan Susan Vaughan is offline
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Hello again, David -- After recently posting my first villanelle and getting help from some great critiquers, I dared to imagine I actually had something worth sharing. Now wondering if that was a judgment based on ignorance on my part! You mention that a villanelle

" . . . won't work without emphatic meter, which takes much training these days, and it won't work without an intelligent appraisal of the strengths and limitations of the form itself."

I don't know that my meter was particularly "emphatic" and in fact I'm not sure what that means. Isn't a subtle use of meter more desirable, for it to exist as a background aspect where it's less noticeable, maybe with variations, rather than being overly regular?

Also, did you have further thoughts that you might share on the "strengths and limitations of the form" one ought to intelligently appraise to write better villanelles in future? Thank you,
Susan Vaughan

P.S. Just belatedly wanted to add at least a personal response to graywyvern's query about why people keep writing villanelles when they're practically doomed from the start.

At least in my case: 1) I found it a great delight to just get to endlessly mess around with a single repetend that felt almost magically physical in its effect to me (the vertical take-offs and gaping at the rise, with the hummingbirds and jets, if anyone recalls, or cares!)

2) Also, I got great satisfaction in FINALLY finding -- after failing and failing and failing for miserable days -- those seemingly impossible rhymes for "Harrier" and making them, I hoped, seem easy!

So, graywyvern, I would guess it's those kinds of enjoyment -- masochistic though they may often be! -- that keeps the villanelle in business.

P.S. again. Lastly I must add that after reading Clive's hilarious poem currently on the metrical board about "barkeep, show my sozzled carcass the door, will ya" (sorry Clive, it was much better of course) -- which I can't think of the form's name but it goes ABA, BCB, CDC, DED, etc., I think -- now I've absolutely got to try one of those!

Any recommendations on that form, David, besides to definitely choose easier rhymes than "Harrier"?!


[This message has been edited by Susan Vaughan (edited January 07, 2002).]
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Old 01-07-2002, 01:06 PM
David Mason David Mason is offline
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I haven't looked at Susan's villanelle yet, though I will, when I get out from under some paper here. By emphatic meter, I didn't mean regular meter, I meant strong meter. Some villanelles have worked with fascinating but selective variations in their refrains, some have used enjambments skillfully, some have made good use of metrical substitutions, but it seems to me that the ones that work all announce the form boldly and don't try too hard to hide it. Some very great sonnets might well hide the fact that they're sonnets to all but the most trained ear, but I think the villanelle is a form in which one can cross a line and create so many variations that the form itself breaks down--I see this in some student villanelles, anyway.

To demonstrate my point about each form having strengths and limitations, consider the sestina for a moment: it's overused, but I still feel delight when I run across a good one. What happens to most students is this: they think, Ah, an easy form, no absolute demand in terms of meter and no rhyme, all I gotta do is repeat these six words and it's only 39 lines long. Well, it turns out that 39 lines is a long time to sustain a lyric, and I can depend on seeing most student sestinas bog down in about the fourth stanza. They get wordy and they don't do anything new. One of my brighter students just turned in a very good one that was saved because she began the fourth stanza with the word "But" and made a sort of turn in the poem--she saw the problem of sustaining her course any further in one direction, and she changed tack.

In the villanelle, since you're repeating the two lines, there's a huge danger that you'll just say the same things over and over again. That's why the best of them change the magnitude of their subject along the way, or increase the emotional or intellectual stakes in some way. The form has a built-in weakness that you have to overcome. That's part of mastering it. Again, I say this as one who has never mastered it, never written a good villanelle--or sestina, for that matter....
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Old 01-07-2002, 09:48 PM
jasonhuff jasonhuff is offline
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One thing I hear asked often is whether or not a poem is sonnet material (or villanelle, or whatever). What exactly makes a poem lean towards a certain form? How does the subject influence the form the poem takes?

jason
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Old 01-08-2002, 08:22 AM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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That's a good question, and I'd love to hear David's take on it. When I feel a poem coming on, the initial impulse seems to bring its form with it, as if it "knew" why it had to be a sonnet or a villanelle or what have you. Is that a common feeling, and is it accurate, or simply an illusion based on having read a great many sonnets and villanelles that do this or that, which is something like what you want to do in this new poem?
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Old 01-08-2002, 08:36 AM
David Mason David Mason is offline
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Well, I think one reason we "practice" writing in fixed forms is so that we'll have them around when we really need them. Any good musician knows that having a lot of tunes at one's command is a good thing, and I think poets ought to practice their scales just like musicians and learn a lot of tunes. It's not that one necessarily will write a good villanelle or a good sonnet, but that one ought to be equipped to go that way if the opportunity arises. Like Rhina, I suspect, I work in the dark for some portion of a poem's composition, not knowing necessarily where I'll find its form. But having some forms at my command gives me a range of choices, and I can start to see in a poem some legitimate directions it might take.

I once wrote a poem in four six-line stanzas, the first three unrhymed, the final one rhymed. It occured to me that I had a damned good sestet for a sonnet there, if I could only boil the previous 18 lines down to 8 for an octave. Well, I haven't yet succeeded in doing that, and the poem has its present life in its original form. But I don't exclude the possibility that it might someday become a sonnet.

Richard Wilbur says somewhere that if you feel like saying something in about eight lines and then responding to it in a slightly shorter space, you might just be on the way to a sonnet. That's pretty much the way I feel about it. Writing in a given form is not in itself a virtuous activity, from my point of view, but writing a really good poem that has found its form, whatever that form might be, is the real thing to do.
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Old 01-09-2002, 07:14 AM
Rhina P. Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat is offline
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David, I agree completely about the value and importance of practicing forms. In fact, on occasion I've annoyed stu-dents expecting that a creative writing class will be a good place to Express Deep Thoughts by telling that I'm not after Deep Thoughts, but skill. It's hard, at first, getting them to let go and play without feeling duty-bound to say something serious and "valuable"! After a while, of course, they do, and then they're hooked. And then they have the forms, as you say, just in case "valuable" comes along some day. What takes time to learn is throwing away the exercises afterward--except for those very few that actually seem to become poems.
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Old 01-09-2002, 10:43 AM
David Mason David Mason is offline
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Rhina,
The Greeks have a lovely word for agreement: symphony.

Dave
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Old 01-09-2002, 01:26 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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My example counts for a lot less than the ones we've heard, but I sometimes start out knowing the form I want to try and then try to use that decision as I begin to write. For example, if I "know" I want to write a sonnet, I'll avoid taking too long to get to the "point," figuring I have to wrap up the first part of the poem in 8 lines. If I have something longer in mind, I might spend 6 or 8 lines setting a scene or laying groundwork. My recent terzanelle was a self-conscious decision to try the form ,and I tried as I wrote the first lines to bear in mind that I'd have to find some way to bring the lines back, possibly somewhat altered, in the end.

Other times, maybe most of the times, the decision comes after a few lines are written. If the first few lines come out iambic pentameter, I find myself wondering if I could stand to hear that third line a few more times, or whether the rhyme I've used at this point can be sustained a few more times...and if the answer is yes, I might tip toward a villanelle. If I write six unrhyming lines, I might glimpse the end-words and wonder whether I should be foolish enough to turn it into a sestina. Etc.

But whether you commit before the first line is written, or a few lines later, I think you generally need to commit at some point and then make decisions that will allow you to fulfill the form you've settled on.
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