Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Villainy of Villanelles

   When I was doing the undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford, I was lucky enough to have as a tutor, for a short time, Jenny Lewis, the poet behind such works as 'After Gilgamesh'.  Not only was I lucky during the course, but afterwards too, as she has since set up The Poet's House, from which she runs courses and day-schools. Today, I attended another of her day-schools, looking at poetic form, primarily sestinas and villanelles.

   Now, I like villanelles. When I was doing my MA, I discovered Elizabeth Bishop's 'One Art', admired the poem, admired the subversion of the form and assumed it was far too difficult a thing for me to do myself. The rules are quite straightforward, but basing a 19-line poem around two basic rhymes, which adds to the challenge. If you want to check out the rules, they are here. I wrote a couple of pretty terrible ones during the diploma, which are unlikely to see the light of day until they have been seriously re-written, and then moved on, sticking to the safety of free verse. But then, last Christmas, I received a copy of Stephen Fry's 'The Ode Less Travelled' and determined to master poetic form by working my way through the book.

   I read the introduction, found a wonderfully iambic phrase that kicked my slumbering Muse out of her stupor, and wrote a villanelle. (I still have the rest of the book to read...)  I have since put it on my fictional blog, which means it is now ineligible for most competitions or publications, and read it a couple of times at public readings. At the risk of being either repetitive or overly self-referential, I include it below for your reading delight.

   Today's day-school also generated another villanelle and a sort of tritina, both of which will receive a severe editing before they are either shared or submitted. In the meantime, you could hear me reading, with some of my poetic colleagues, at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street, Oxford, as part of their 'Sounds of Surprise' season, on Sunday 25th November, between 5 and 7 pm - cup of tea and cake included. Jenny is also reading the previous Sunday. Go along to one of them if you can, they're great fun.

On Writing Poetry

I have no inkling how to start,
And listen to these words in vain:
"Technique is just the Greek for art."

The moment when true lovers part,
A wartime death, a drop of rain -
I have no inkling how to start.

I seek the words to set apart
A poem sure to bring me fame,
With no technique to make it art.

An idea's there within my heart;
Thesauruses must take the strain
For I've no inkling how to start

And clogged up rhyme, and counterpart
Strict rhythm, make themselves the bane
Of technique, just the Greek for art!

Heroic couplets won't impart
Enough to fool my struggling brain.
I have no inkling how to start
And technique's all just Greek for art.


  1. Well I loved this and learned the art of villanelles from Jen Lew as well though I wonder if I could now write one. I need a day course to refresh sometime. And the poem above is lovely. Well done. A nice finale to a lovely day for me.

    1. Jenny is an inspiration, isn't she! You should check out her website - link above. Glad you liked the poem!