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National Poetry Month: Day 8

whirlwind visit, geological grieving

When we come to wish each other goodbye
all we have is a language of need
and photos taken with the mind’s eye;

our social whirl expired with a sigh,
as every grace fell swiftly to seed,
when we come to wish each other goodbye

the wish has already been born and died;
at the start we took no heed
and photos taken with the mind’s eye

seemed enough. Now the memory starts to lie,
and the fictional photo colours bleed
When we come to wish each other goodbye.

As time passes it stills the first cry,
leaves a hunger that nothing can feed
and photos taken with the mind’s eye;

Nothing stops time from haring by,
eating memory with vicious greed:
when we come to wish each other goodbye,
(photos taken with the mind’s eye).

– Delilah Des Anges

When I was first taught about villanelles at university we were given the example of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, and informed that because of its claustrophobic repeating refrain, the villanelle (which in this respect has a certain kinship with the triolet) can be classified as an “obsessive” format. This means in practical terms that if one wishes to write a poem which obsesses over a single idea or person, returning to a particular phrase or two to  encompass the emotions conveyed, a villanelle is a good form to employ.

The formula for a villanelle is, while not complex, restrictive. The strict form is: A1BA2 / ABA1 / ABA2 / ABA1 / ABA2 / ABA1A2. It is also possible to vary lines A1 and A2 into A1 and C1, meaning that they do not rhyme with each other.

The key to writing a successful villanelle (which  is something of a trial: the two repeating lines in such close proximity and the number of times they must hit logical rhymes can put something of a strain on the imagination of the poet, not to mention on their skills of prosody) is to find repeating lines which are flexible or vague enough to be used in a wide range of configurations. These should end in a rhyme which is common throughout the English language – I went with the “-eye” sound, which has dozens of partners and assonances – and need to work next to each other.

Once the framework of the the villanelle has been laid out (with some deviations from the strict form in punctuation or tense if necessary) the remaining lines can be shaded in. This counterintuitive composition (if one supposes the intuitive method of composition is to write linearly and, as Dylan Thomas advised, “begin at the beginning” and subsequently end at the end) can provide as much support for the rest of the poem as putting in the load-bearing walls does in the construction of a house.


Throughout this month I will be nagging readers to donate to MSF

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