Villanelles: Why They Are so F**king Difficult (High Church)

Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953, was a fairly brilliant drunkard, and I do not believe that those two things very often overlap. I do not know what his relationship with his father was like, although it seems that many famous men did not do well with that particular issue, so I am guessing it was, at the least, a bit fraught. Lovely word, that. So here is the poem about death that most Americans seem to think of whenever anyone mentions a formal form of poetry that is not a sonnet.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now a villanelle combines (in my opinion) the disadvantages of a sonnet and the advantages of a sestina. On the one hand, we only have two rhyme sounds: ite and ay, and we have to manage nineteen lines with these. On the other hand, once we have chosen the two lines to repeat, they take up eight of those nineteen lines. All we have to do after that is find six B rhymes and five A rhymes. No problemo! (Yeah, right.)

The problem I have with villanelles is that I have a hard enough time coming up with lines that I can say once, much less than eight times! Look at how Thomas manages this. He uses a succession that moves from wise men, to good men, to wild men, to grave men and finally to the speakers father. This is very similar to what pop music composers call coloring of verses, where each verse makes the same old chorus mean something different (as in Mark Wills country song Wish You Were Here).

But he very strictly follows the form: each of the two repeated lines is repeated EXACTLY every time. (I think of this as High Church Formal Poetry (HCFP): the rubrics are crucial and must be obeyed.) And to give the man his due, I suspect this is one reason why people ALWAYS remember his villanelle, even when they no longer have a clue as to what a villanelle actually is.

Thomas, Dylan. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. New Directions, 1952.

The Joy of Sestinas


Sestinas do not get nearly the same kind of PR as sonnets, but I love them much more, in part because, rather than rhyme (and you know how I feel about rhyme), the key to a sestina is the end words.

Before I go on, I should say that no, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” is not a sestina. It is a villanelle. We tend to get taught these two together in school but there are many more famous villanelles than sestinas. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is another great example of a villanelle that you might be thinking of. Everyone always mentions these two whenever I talk about sestinas. Sigh.

A sestina is a 39-line poem with only six end words. The order of the repetitions is as follows from verse one through six:







Then the envoi takes the first three end words of that last stanza as the middle words of the last three lines, and the last three end words as its last three end words:




This means that A will be the final word of your poem, so you have to choose that one carefully. I find it also helps if one or more of your end words can act as two different parts of speech. For example:

Ode to the Sestina    (Draft 1)

Let me now speak in praise of the sestina, and how

it allows me to look at things six and a half ways. I

take a phrase said to me, like a cookie’s fortune about love

and travel, and I hold it up like a gem. All those

facets reflect the light differently. I shine six

colors of light on the phrase, giving each word six lines

to stretch its legs and walk around, do tai chi, line

up for lunch, grab a cup of Joe, and demonstrate how

my blue eyes see the wor(l)d. It only takes six

repetitions before I crack the code, find out why I

can’t stop thinking about the phrase. It’s like those

songs that get stuck in your head, with lyrics about love

or how you want your burger, but it’s not about love

so much as attention, herding the cats of the mind into line

for inspection. The joy and the challenge of those

constraints of a formal form of poetry like this are how

to spread the wild wings of creativity, as if I

were a caged eagle in a zoo. But I don’t feel caged. Six

words repeated offers far more space than six

strides or wing-flaps. Maybe the difference is my love

of words and the many worlds contained in them. I

could make an epic quest inside each one, draw a line

showing my journey on a parchment map. I can show how

it’s done (certainly it helps if at least one of those

words can be both noun and verb), but showing those

intricacies is easy compared to showing how a mere six

repetitions opens up meaning. I don’t always know how

it happens, that slow unwrapping as if a poem were love

or a veil or a kilt. But I almost always find that toeing the line

gives me freedom, the way banks constrain a river’s flood. I

follow the turnings, the rise and fall of the language I

have travelled all my life. And when alchemy turns those

words into a fragile kind of gold, then                        line




I six

those love

lines how

And this is where things always fall apart for a while. Then I just stand up and walk away. Go to the bathroom. Get more coffee. Make a sandwich. Work with some clients (because I often have an open Word document on my computer at work to add a line or two in between appointments). And I trust that the magic that has gotten me this far, and the Working Poet’s Work Ethic that makes me go at it again and again, will see me through. Eventually.