Form and Tradition

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Many contemporary American poets have written villanelles believing–or perhaps a more accurate word is feeling–that in doing so they are rebelling against a tradition by altering it according to contemporary norms. Cheryl Clarke, for instance, author of the villanelle “What goes around comes around, or The proof is in the pudding,” a piece anthologized in Annie Finch’s 1994 A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, introduces her poems in that volume by describing some of her motives for writing in traditional forms, often in ways that are troped as untraditional: “I do it to be rebellious and sometimes to be reserved. How can I reflect my black self in the form, how can I speak my contempt from inside the master’s formula?” (48). The object of that rebelliousness and that contempt, however, is in the case of the villanelle decidedly unclear. Who has codified the formula? Who is the master? What if we ourselves are the masters?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 What is clear is that is that the idea of the villanelle’s foreign and archaic essence has been more important than its really rather mundane, even sordidly familiar story; the schematic villanelle is the creation of poets and scholars invested in politicized aesthetic debates and anxious to consolidate their literary reputations. These poets and scholars have continually invoked and never narrated the history of the villanelle; my first task in this project will therefore be to tell that history of the schematic villanelle as fully as possible. My second task will be to show exactly how little that full history has mattered to contemporary poets and scholars of poetry, and my third task will be to argue that this ignorance has been entirely justified and even necessary. It would hardly be worthwhile to demand that poets and scholars should cease to debate and worry and romanticize and prescribe, in any case, and while I do want to help set the record straight as to the true history of the villanelle, it seems to me to have been a fortunate accident that the record has heretofore been crooked.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Many superb villanelles have been written in English in the twentieth century, and I think that this is largely because the true history of the villanelle has not been fully known. To my mind, the villanelle has become recently popular at least partly because it has connoted tradition without bearing the burden of one. Contemporary poets might gesture toward a tradition (sometimes with rude gestures, at that), but they have insisted stridently that the tradition is foreign–that, in fact, the very concept of a tradition is foreign to American poetry. The villanelle has the cachet of an elitist form but the shape and rhythm of a popular or folk form, and there are not yet so many brilliant examples of it that originality seems impossible; it has therefore become one of the forms of choice in a poetic culture that is schizophrenically split between a devotion to defiant originality and a desire for the kind of eminence that an antique European fixed form can grant.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Stephen Cushman has held that the defining characteristic of American poetry may well be anxiety about its own form:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 American poetry without convulsiveness would not be American poetry. To wish for a more tranquil tradition, one in which factions have settled their differences or a particular faction has displaced all others, is to wish American poetry out of existence. But my larger point is that nothing has convulsed, and continues to convulse, American poetry as violently as arguments about poetic form. (187)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The case of the villanelle is striking evidence for Cushman’s thesis, since the villanelle seems to have become a vital and valuable contemporary American form chiefly because it simultaneously provokes and soothes our anxieties about traditional European forms. To write a villanelle in contemporary America is to scratch at the itch for formalism–and as any mother will tell you, scratching only makes it worse. Wishing for a more tranquil tradition may be to wish American poetry out of existence, but that wish is as American as the poetry itself; therefore, what I wish is that we could have the poetry without the anxiety; what I wish is that all poems were always the first of their kind, pioneering–and in this, I am merely typical of American poetry culture. What I sadly know, however, and what I think American poetry culture ought to grant, is that we are often policemen, not pioneers; when it comes to poetic form, all of us prescribe and punish more than we would like to admit.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This project too is embodied, of course, in a particular form. I have chosen to conduct this literary history largely on a case-study method, concentrating chiefly on the transmission and reception of particularly influential villanelles. The introduction documents the current popularity of the nineteen-line fixed-form villanelle in Anglophone poetry and its absence in Francophone poetry. The first chapter focuses on Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” offering a history, collation, interpretation, and new translation of this ignored original villanelle. The second chapter describes the highly politicized aesthetic context of nineteenth-century French and English post-Romanticism, when professional poet-critics Théodore de Banville and Edmund Gosse claimed a false history for the villanelle. The third chapter examines the low status of the French forms in the period of high modernism and the Great War, discussing works by Joyce and Pound as well as patriotic poems. The fourth chapter focuses on Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” tracing especially the influence of William Empson. The conclusion places the villanelle firmly within the context of contemporary transatlantic professional poetry culture.

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