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on villanelles, or, many happy returns

More than ten years ago the poet and scholar Julie Kane made a discovery. The villanelle, that creative-writing-class staple, usually introduced as a traditional form like the sonnet or sestina, an exercise or tour de force for poets stretching to late medieval times, did not exist, or not in the historical sense that many of us had believed.

Instead, what we know as the villanelle now—what most of us encountered through famous modern examples by Elizabeth Bishop, or Dylan Thomas or possibly Oscar Wilde—was a made-up, back-dated, invented tradition, drawn from just one poem in Renaissance France (where "villanelle" meant any sort of peasant song); an 1845 parody of that one poem by Théodore de Banville, written in the same form as that single old poem; and a bevy of imitations and misleading manuals of versification, first in France and then in England, starting in the 1870s. Villanelles are real now, and they're fun to memorize, but they're much younger than you think.

You can find a lot of them in the new anthology of villanelles, edited by Marie-Elizabeth Mali and Annie Finch, with front matter by Finch and Kane, widely- and rightly-loved poems by Bishop, Thomas, E. A. Robinson, William Empson (the scary, harsh "Missing Dates"), and contemporary villanelles by many hands, including me. (The subject of my villanelle led her team at last to the WNBA championship in 2012. I don't think my poem helped.)

Mali and Finch and other contributors have sponsored a gaggle of group readings for the anthology; Finch described one of them earlier this month. I took part in the Boston-area reading last week, then went home and re-read the collection, with more attention than I could give the contemporary examples when the book had just come in the mail. I was afraid all those refrains would make it monotonous; my fears were mostly groundless—I liked it, though of course I did not like all the contributions equally well.

What stood out among the contemporaries, so far, were 1. how the villanelle form made poets known for their free spirits, and for their free verse, restrain themselves and take in second thoughts, and 2. how many sorts of things the villanelle form, as a form, could represent. In Elizabeth Alexander's villanelle about Josiah Willard Gibbs, part of her sequence about the Amistad, the form's iterated sameness mirrors the iterated counting-aloud that Gibbs performs as he tries to find someone who speaks Mende: "I learn to count in Mende one to ten/ then hasten to the New York docks to see/ if one of those black seamen is their kind." In Bruce Bennett's "Spilled" the villanelle form tries to restraint, as domestic work tries to restrain, a creeping disorder more powerful than any mop: "It's not the liquid spreading on the floor./ It's everything you've ever spilled, and more."

With Claudia Gary's "The Topiarist," both the shaping hand and the force that wins out over that hand are far far more pleasant: "The topiarist has been called away... And suddenly each leaf's on holiday." In Timothy Donnelly's villanelle of late capitalist workaholic self-loathing, on the other hand, the work of the form stands for other repetitious work we can't help doing, and can't enjoy: "We push ourselves into small tasks that employ us/ unrewardingly on purpose. We tire, we bore./ We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us." (The slightly forced syntax reminds me of Empson.) And that's just A through G. (Michael Schmidt's "Understaffed Villanelle" uses the same analogy, more gently, between the workplace and the page.)

A number of these villanelles refer to older ones, explicitly, knowingly, clumsily, or in a way that truly takes up the baton. A number are jokes: at least two are fourth-grade fart jokes. ("One Art" turns out to be quite a ripe target for parody: I've done it myself.) What the anthology, with all its unevenness, all its profusion, makes clearest of all: villanelles weren't a tradition 150 years ago, but they sure are one now, and they became popular (while other late nineteenth century French, or "French," forms, like the triolet, have faded) for good reason. Bad villanelles plod, or trip over their own feet; good ones use the refrain to do emotional and cognitive work, and they work with just the sense of time that Julie Carr described here a few weeks ago. (Villanelles can also open up space-- infrathin space, perhaps?—for the meanings of the repeated words to change: I'd like to see more poets try to cross that space—it seems to me now that few do.)

Villanelles make a great exercise for writers, even though they feel just like an exercise, in the pejorative sense, when they don't work; when they do, they take advantage both of the form, and of the form's previous examples, from Passerat's sparrow to Bishop's lost house to Paul Muldoon's vision of his parents' grave.

There should be more of them. Any suggestions?

Originally Published: April 26th, 2012

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...