The villanelle

Although it is known as a French form, the roots of the villanelle actually go back to medieval Italy. The bards there sang about pastoral settings. Soon the French were singing, too. By the time the villanelle arrived in England, though, it was used for light-verse topics. In this century, modern and contemporary poets began employing the form for more serious fare.

Next to the sonnet, the villanelle probably is the most common type of formal poem. Its scheme is said to be more difficult to master than that of a sonnet because the villanelle operates on only two rhymes and repeats lines. That's why some experts claim that a villanelle is better suited to French and Italian whose words rhyme more easily than English ones.

I'm not so sure about that. Look up entries in your rhyming dictionary and you'll find English words that have dozens (if not hundreds) of rhymes and slant rhymes. How many do you need?

A form poem needs a formula, plain and simple. Without one, it will be hit-and-miss. You cannot always create a villanelle by sitting at your desk or computer and composing from the top down (as you would a free verse poem). Neither can you rely much on discovery, letting the muse dictate a villanelle from on high. The scheme is too fixed to do that.

Instead you have to plot out your villanelle the way a short story writer or novelist plots a manuscript — before writing it. When you do, you will decrease the chances of wrenching rhyme or forcing lines and increase the chances of composing a masterful villanelle. Follow this method:

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