Poetry Project

The Villanelle

Here follows the strict structure of the form known as the villanelle, but I am of the opinion that one can break with the strict formal rules, as long as what you do works!

From the Poetry Foundation website:

The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem's two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.

Choose a subject that you feel strongly about, or that you want to take off humorously, and find a rhyming couplet that gets to the heart of the matter - two lines that spark off each other. Then use this as a basis for developing a villanelle. Here are some examples.

Or, as usual, write and submit anything you like. Closing date for submissions is 4 April. Send your poems to pieter@slipnet.co.za

Submitted Poems

John Eppel
blood is stickier than water
red of the evening black of the night
my son my son my daughter
mingling after the slaughter
emptying the holy grail of light
blood is stickier than water
forfeits of gold frankincense and myrrh
a pitying and a pitiful sight
my son my son my daughter
seeping through rubble of bricks and mortar
putting his renegades to flight
blood is stickier than water
in a vespertine glow I sought her
but she had gone with her questing knight
my son, my son, my daughter
the day he appeared to court her
she became his acolyte
blood is stickier than water
my son my son my daughter

Poachers’ Moon
Jeannie McKeown
Horn hackers come over the fence too soon
while austere in autumn gold she rises
Beware the passage of the poacher’s moon
Rhino, hide yourselves in shadows’ gloom
slip into the sheltering trees
Horn hackers come over the fence too soon
By reflecting another hemisphere’s noon
atrocities are committed under her serene mirror
Beware the passage of the poacher’s moon
Those too slow, left marooned
feel the axe
Horn hackers come over the fence too soon
Powdered for the whim of the flaccid tycoon
horn gone, your massive heart bursts
Beware the rising of the poacher’s moon!
Hide in the trees while the night birds croon
while she travels the vacuum above
Horn hackers come over the fence too soon
Beware the rising of the poacher’s moon
First villanelle
Linda Zinzi Sealy
I have to write a villanelle by Thursday
Days of soul searching brought only a blank
Two lines must capture the essence of my theme.
Emptiness nonetheless is a Buddhist advantage
Buddhists pursue it in meditation
This could be my villanelle by Thursday.
Sitting for hours in meditation
Thoughts come and go like drifting clouds
These lines can capture the essence of my theme.
The pace of my thoughts has gently slowed down
My body is peaceful and so is my mind
A few lines did capture the essence of my theme.
Maybe my merit is cosmically boosted
Now I can sit for hours in meditation
Here is my villanelle for Thursday
Emptiness is clearly the essence of my theme.
virtual penseé
Ross Fleming
seems to me
these days
it's easier
to read
or write
a poem
than to live
a poetry?
On Signal Hill, early evening (1)
[revised version]
Keith Edwards
Full moon risen.
Satellite dish for a world; tonight, we get the pictures.
On Signal Hill, early evening (2)
[revised version]
Keith Edwards
Full moon risen.
Your face – I was sixty when I first noticed – sad-eyed child with rosebud mouth.
[revised version]
Keith Edwards
Importance is not important, truth is. - JL Austin
He said I hadn’t read enough, and widely;
(me, a girl writer only nineteen)
he urged Camus, Kafka and Catcher in the Rye. I
ponder the importance of importance:
the arctic seal’s mad flounder
the lone floe-bear
the coral unreddening
and the sea,
creeping closer.
Homage to the House Dust Mite
[revised version]
Keith Edwards
O House Dust Mite, House Dust Mite, how your name does delight.
Like anapaest and lilting dactyl,
your name it rocks, rhythm charms my heart still.
So don’t let them hoover you into extinction,
the carpets are waiting, move all your troops in.
Affirming Madness
Keith Edwards
for Jimmy Manyi
How can they affirm whom they can't define?
Remind them: the HUMAN, the only race!
Work where you choose and for God's sake don't whine.
The COMRADES will say move – don't wait in line,
you have to shift up, you have to make space.
But how could they affirm? They couldn't define.
It's QUOTAS now – you might have to resign;
a scramble’s on, fighting for a place.
Can't work where you choose and won't help to whine.
They'll call you SURPLUS, a need to align;
so just upstick and move, quit your home base.
How can they affirm whom they won't define.
Be a REFUGEE, leave the Cape and its wine,
find a province where you don't have to chase.
You''ll work where you choose, no cause to repine.
You want in the end to see your sun shine,
you want to bow out with pride, leave a TRACE.
And if they affirm you (still can't define),
well, you'll work where you choose, have your light whine.


Last month’s exercise might have put some off as there were fewer submissions. The villanelle might seem an archaic, European form, and too constructed for some who prefer free verse, but I am interested in the paradox that working within the tight structure of rhyme and repeated lines can also loosen one’s writing in surprising ways.

Just to remind everyone that the exercises are merely prompts, but poets are welcome to submit anything else they are working on.

John Eppel’s haunting and enigmatic lament titled Villanelle is threaded through with both secular and sacred images of loss and death. The poem captures the mood well, and the form is perfect for lament, with lines repeated. I would like one more clue as to what this poem is about – this perhaps could be provided by the title, which currently does not add anything. I feel this poem is slightly underwritten, which is better than being overwritten, as the reader has to take time and apply her mind to what is happening (rather than being hit over the head with overt meaning). Yet I also want to know that my notion of what the poet intended by the poem is not way off.

In Poachers’ Moon, Jeannie McKeown works with the paradox that the “austere in autumn gold” light of the full moon, which we usually associate with love, serenity and beauty, provides the light for poachers to commit their atrocities. It is an effective set up. There are lines where there is some clumsiness – it is always a good idea to read your poem aloud to hear where the rhythm or metre falters. I also didn’t understand why the poachers were “too soon”. And although it might be possible to get away with having lines that do not rhyme, this is unusual in a villanelle. I would rewrite paying attention to the rhymes of the non-couplet lines. I did like the short line “feel the axe”, which amplifies the horror of the sudden mutilation.

Linda Zinzi Sealy’s clever and amusing First Villanelle – here the title is apt – turns writer’s block on its head, as it becomes a Buddhist virtue. I also liked the movement of the poem, from the stress and pressure of “having” to write a villanelle by Thursday, to the last line of peaceful emptiness, which also, paradoxically, achieves the goal of the exercise. Again, I suggest reading a poem you are writing aloud, and listening for those lines that stumble on the tongue. Where the content of the line is about stumbling, that could work, otherwise it can interfere with what might be an otherwise lovely poem.

The thought vignette of Ross Fleming’s virtual penseé contrasts the simplicity of a thought with the difficulty of lived experience. I suggest cutting the first line; the last one also sticks with me. Could this work?

these days
it's easier
to read
or write
a poem than
to live one.

I liked the two versions of On Signal Hill, early evening by Keith Edwards where a few words convey a sense of something much greater. I suggest changing “risen” to “rises” or “is rising”, as these evoke movement, and the assonance works better with the rest of the poem. I also suggest changing “Your face – I was sixty when I first noticed – sad-eyed child with rosebud mouth” to “Your face – at sixty I first noticed – sad-eyed child with rosebud mouth”.

In Importance, Keith Edwards seems to contrast the dictum that one should read the great novels with the importance of being aware of climate change. I like the switch in language between the first and second stanzas, and the powerful imagery of changes in nature. I am confused about the girl of nineteen – is this Jane Austen? Yet climate change was not an overt issue in her time. I need more clarity as to who the narrator is.

Homage to the House Dust Mite is lovely, in the style of Ogden Nash or Gus Ferguson. Keith Edwards’ last submission is a villanelle Affirming Madness, which takes on the thorny issue of affirmative action and race classification. The poem is full of energy, but comes across too wordy and constructed for my liking. It is such an art not to let words get in the way of what you are saying. I suspect that one of the problems is not having enough time to live with a poem before the submission deadline.


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