October 17, 2012

The villanelle makes a comeback


Claire Kelley

Sylvia Plath wrote a villanelle called “Mad Girl’s Love Song.”

A villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. Five tercets are followed by a quatrain.  This highly structured and rigid form is only about a century and a half old — its name invokes Italian and Spanish dance songs, but the modern villanelle can be traced back to 19th century, when poets adopted the structure of Jean Passerat’s Renaissance poem “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” (“I have lost my turtledove”).

In the 20th century, modernist writers weren’t crazy about the villanelle because the form is so constricting. James Joyce had his fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus write a villanelle in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, presumably to show how the young protagonist relies on conventions of rhyming and repetition in his first real attempt at art.

I’d say the form’s comeback began with the well-known Dylan Thomas villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which was first published in 1951. Other famous ones are Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art and Theodore Roethke’s The Waking. Seamus Heaney wrote one for Harvard’s 350th birthday. Just recently, the hosts of Slate’s Culture Gabfest declared their preference for Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” (see below).

According to the editors of a new Everyman’s Library collection of villanelles, “the importance of the villanelle has been sneaking up on the poetry world for decades.” They explain its appeal:

“The villanelle is one of the most fascinating and paradoxical of poetic forms, quirky and edgy… prone to moods of obsession and delight; structured through the marriage of repetition and surprise. No wonder it is currently enjoying such a powerful post-modern blossoming, out of long-growing premodernist roots.”

Contemporary poets are returning to the poetic structure, tossing aside reservations about artificial form, and embracing the spiraling evolution from obsession to acceptance that the villanelle provides.


Mad Girl’s Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead,

I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary darkness gallops in.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed

And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head).

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:

Exit seraphim and enter Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said.

But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head).

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;

At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head).



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.