1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” made the villanelle contemporary, postmodern, popular. Almost everyone nowadays seems to have written one or two villanelles (not usually more) just to see if they can, just to show that they can, just to see what happens. New Formalists cherish the link with an accessible art and with a pure abstraction. Multiculturalist poets use it as one of the master’s tools that can be used to break into or take down the master’s house–or to build a new one. Anxious students and perhaps still more anxious teachers find the “discipline” of a fixed form salutary: more learnable, more teachable, more gradable than the disturbing indefinables of free verse. Closeted populists may sing along with the radio in the private goldfish bowls of their cars, then sing more respectable refrains at a lower volume in the public cloister of poetry culture. Postmodern linguistic gamesters expose the arbitrariness of language and pattern, especially of the binary opposition that promises a final resolution in coupling. All these poets (unless all these characters inhabit a single poet) are writing other poems in other forms, but for the same reasons. Somehow all these disparate and struggling atoms bond to make contemporary poetry: hortatory, famished, professional, melodious, babbling, rasterized.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The danger of even this book-length project on the villanelle is that it might foster the impression that all poems are villanelles, which is demonstrably not the case. The villanelle–and other fixed forms such as the sestina, not even excluding the sonnet–retains its most contemporary character when we are a bit surprised to find it hanging around (again!), like the hounds in David Graham’s “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings”: “How shall I not love them, snoozing / right through the Annunciation? They inhabit / the outskirts of every importance, sprawl / dead center in each oblivious household” (Poetry Daily 374). A single poet might go through a villanelle phase, and works like James Cummins’s The Whole Truth (a book of Perry Mason sestinas) might have more than just novelty appeal, but on the whole the first endearment of contemporary poetry to its readers is its Babel variegation. The vanity publishers at Forward Press, who need not worry about producing a book people would want to read, have already issued several collections of villanelles and rondeaus. Such dull, sad drones can be left uncousined.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Still, the value of artificially isolating the villanelle for attention is that historical contiguities can be traced where otherwise we might see none. This is important. Fractious factionalism is at least as dreary as uniformity. Moreover, there is a fair degree of certainty about the influences revealed by poetic form, especially in the case of the early history of the villanelle, where we can trace the passing of the form from hand to hand, text to text, with fascinating precision: Ténint, Banville, Gosse, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the world. Poetic form enables poetic history. When Paul Fussell declares that the poppies of “In Flanders Fields” are descended from the poppy that Patience‘s Bunthorne might hold “in his medieval hand” while sashaying down Piccadilly, the possibility seems both likely and fertile. But there were, after all, also real poppies in Flanders fields. We know with more certainty that McCrae learned the rondeau not from nature or his own imagination, but from some book or some teacher. Sometimes we can find out from where, or from whom, and then what becomes important is human relationship, even if that relationship is mediated by text. Poetic form is always to some degree about poetic community and confluence, which for some means a specter called “tradition.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 And because what is important is human relationship and poetic community, we ought to remember that the villanelle is a mere golem. McFarland is particularly prone to semi-personification of the villanelle, and this leads him into the errors of supposing on the one hand that Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” is somehow derived from Mazzone Marc’ Antonio’s sixteenth-century “Con quessa belta mano” and asserting on the other hand that “Despite the reiterative refrain lines, the villanelle had been proven, at least in the hands of able poets, capable of the profoundest themes”–as though such a capacity had lain dormant in the form for centuries and waited only for the able poets of the twentieth century to reveal it (96). The villanelle is an abstraction, like all sets of rules, and is therefore subject to virtually infinite interpretation. Even what constitutes “a villanelle” is subject to argument. When nineteenth-century poets and critics describe the form as on the one hand “naïve” and on the other hand “decadent,” we can easily see that this is projection, and what is at stake has nothing to do with the intrinsic nature of the form. When twentieth-century poets and critics describe the form as “obsessive” or “arbitrary” or “difficult,” or “inevitable,” however, we may commit the fallacy of thinking that our own judgments are more accurate and final than those of our foolish predecessors.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 That the Emperor has no clothes and the fixed-form villanelle has no history prior to the nineteenth century is a thrilling scandal (or at the very least a mildly interesting footnote to literary history), but it makes me more worried and querulous than I would like to be about the state of poetry scholarship. Even that phrase, “the state of poetry scholarship,” sounds reactionary. But without becoming too irritable about swallows and summers, I can observe with neutral interest that the history of the villanelle shows, if anything, how little history matters to poetry. Like poetic form, perhaps, poetic history matters only insofar as it is useful. The poets and scholars of any age are always embroiled in their own thoroughly contemporary professional and aesthetic tussles, and it is this context that produces new poetry. In all honesty, if there is a zero-sum choice to be made, I would rather have good new poems than perfectly accurate scholarship, and therefore I am glad that the villanelle has carried its false mythology. Without it I am not sure that the many good new villanelles would have been written; contemporary poets may well be attracted to the form precisely because it connotes tradition without bearing the burden of tradition. But many poets who have written villanelles that I love have averred that they are using form ironically, slyly, writing against tradition rather than with tradition, revising the forms, and I do think that these self-interpretations are erroneous. The short tradition behind the villanelle shows above all, I think, how hollow are our pretensions to rebellion and nonconformity and revision and transformation; it shows that we are often in fact the very authorities and institutions and rule-makers we profess to oppose. I think it may be best to come to terms with this.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I also think that the modernist notion of technical mastery has evolved with the consolidation of the institutional authority of creative writing programs into the notion of technical credentialization. Contemporary poets often write villanelles as an exercise; contemporary teachers of poetry often set villanelles as an exercise. One additional (ahistorical) point I would like to make is that the villanelle is not so difficult to write as it is commonly reputed to be. The “Frenchness” of the villanelle signified its association with decadent sexuality for the Victorians, but for us I think it signifies a vague and monolithic European tradition. The term “French forms” is as inaccurate and as politicized as any categorical term; the insistence with which Anglophone poetry handbooks still refer to the forms as “French” seems to indicate a reluctance to assume responsibility for them. Francis Barton Gummere’s A Handbook of Poetics, For Students of English Verse, first published in 1885 and often reprinted thereafter, commented “Of late, considerable effort has been put forth to introduce into our English verse-system the forms known to French poetry. […] So far, these forms are not naturalised as English measures, but they are practised to a considerable extent” (141). More than a hundred years later, the villanelle has not even yet been granted more than a temporary visa into the country of Anglophone poetry; handbooks such as Adams’s Poetic Designs still place it under the “French Forms” heading. This categorical term is probably both irreversible and harmless, but it is interesting that the villanelle and the sestina, both of which have been enthusiastically adopted by contemporary poets writing in English, are still treated as aliens to the English language.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The “French form” categorization might now have less to do with shoring up the fragments of national identities than it does with shoring up the différance of language identities; the unconscious imperialism of the nineteenth century has probably been mostly eradicated, but there remains some trace of linguistic othering. Commentators repeatedly justify the assertion that the villanelle is foreign to English by citing the fact that there are fewer rhyme sounds in English than in French, which supposedly makes it more difficult for a poet writing in English to find the number of rhyming words necessary for the composition of a nineteen-line villanelle. That there are only a handful of villanelles in French while there are now sackfuls of villanelles in English, then, must mean that Anglophone poets have a better work ethic than Francophone poets, or that there are enough rhymes in English to go around, or that difficulty is no deterrent to poetic composition. Some combination of all three seems to me to be the case: a Type A anxiety about poetic knowledge and skill seems to characterize professionalized American poetry in particular, and I would argue that the comparative poverty of rhyme options in English is neither acute nor daunting.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 It is difficult to count words (what constitutes a word?), but most estimates suggest that there are at least four times as many words in English as there are in French: The Story of English reports that “The compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists about 500,000 words; and a further half-million technical and scientific terms remain uncatalogued. According to traditional estimates, neighboring German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, including such Franglais as le snacque-barre and le hit-parade” (10). This means that there are far more sets of rhyme sounds to choose from in English, even if those sets contain fewer rhymes. One English rhyming dictionary lists about 55,000 rhyme-sets, while one French rhyming dictionary lists only about 50,000 words in the entire volume.1 Moreover, rhyme-sets in English, though they contain fewer elements than rhyme-sets in French, commonly contain more than seven rhymes, the highest number of rhymes needed for a conventional nineteen-line villanelle. To exemplify: the sound “-elle” that anchors the refrain in Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” has about seven hundred rhymes in French, while the sound “-ight” that anchors the refrain in Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” has about three hundred rhymes in English.2 And these are only the perfect rhymes; the use of slant rhyme, of course, offers thousands more possibilities to Anglophone poets.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 What distinguishes formal poetry from free verse is not anything to do with ease or difficulty of composition; it is everything to do with ease or difficulty of judgment. It is far easier to distinguish a good villanelle from a bad one than it is to distinguish a good free verse poem from a bad one, because the standards are clearer. Even these shift: in earlier periods a villanelle was judged good if it did not vary the refrains; creative and complex variation is now admired. Formal poetry that used slant rhyme was judged inferior before, now it doesn’t matter. But the difference is the existence of objective criteria, a field against which to measure. In this sense it is surely easier to write a good villanelle than a good poem in free verse, because when the poet becomes the critic of her own work, as she inevitably does, she can better see the discrepancies and labor to correct them.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Julie Kane writes, “The fact is that a hundred-fifty-year-old fixed-form villanelle tradition does now exist, although erected on a false foundation: situations perceived as real are real in their consequences” (269). Poets who have written villanelles in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have inadvertently constructed, not altered or demolished, a tradition. The sixteenth-century French villanelle is not there to be altered (save for a single instance by Passerat, and that instance is relatively unknown); and the work of the no doubt contemptible late-Victorian dilettante poets was never an important influence, even negatively, for contemporary poets. It seems clear that contemporary poets have, in the case of the villanelle, been more receptive than rebellious, however pallid an attitude that may seem. That the villanelle is flourishing now does not indicate that contemporary poets have recovered a naïve and graceful form from a naïve and graceful time, nor does it indicate that they have radically deconstructed an oppressive poetic tradition: it indicates that contemporary poets have been companionably influenced by the poetry and poetic practice of their peers, as always.

  1. These numbers are taken from the back cover of Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1995) and from the introduction to Philippe Martinon and Robert Lacroix de l’Isle’s Dictionnaire des rimes Françaises, précédé d’un traité de versification (Paris: Larousse, 1962) 6. I was unable to find a more recent French rhyming dictionary that gives information as to the number of rhymesets or words it contains.
  2. See Léon Warnant, Dictionnaire des rimes orales et écrites (Paris: Larousse, 1973) 183-9 on the sound “el” and Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1995) 242-3 on the sound “ite.”
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