Art & Culture

I learn by going where I have to go

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiAug 04, 2015 | 19:57

I learn by going where I have to go

One of the chief pleasures of reading is the way one book leads to another, and sometimes how one stumbles on something rare that opens out entire worlds. When I was in school, I often sat in the library when I was free and browsed the more obscure sections. It was in the reference shelves that I stumbled upon The Dictionary of Literary Terms and though I looked up entries randomly, I realised that I was soaking up more information than I'd thought.


This I found out when, in our literature elective class, we began to study Auden's poem "If I Could Tell You". Anyone could recognise that there was a clear pattern to the poem but I knew, having recently read the entry in the dictionary, that this was a villanelle.

I remember the thrill of the moment: one part pleased that I knew something because I'd found it out for myself; one part grasping at the wonders of classification and recognition - a process so close to the scientific in something as free-form as literature; and one part heartache for what the poem itself was saying, and all that I knew I felt though my experience was not commensurate with the words.

That poem of Auden's is one I've always remained very fond of and it was the reason why, more than the sonnet, the villanelle is the form that has sunk its hooks into me. There are poetic forms that depend on the number of lines, end rhymes and meter, but the forms that I find fascinating are the ones - like the villanelle - where the lines themselves are repeated.


Repetition makes the villanelle song-like. The force and purpose of the line changes with the context of preceding lines or stanzas; but there's also something of the dance in the way the repeated lines move with new ones and then return to each other in the closing quatrain. The challenge is in the constraint of having to use the same lines over six stanzas and have them renewed with each repetition.

Though the villanelle has nothing in common with Dr Seuss, I am reminded of the time someone challenged him to write a book for children using no more than 50 words. He wrote Green Eggs and Ham and no one can deny that it's an earworm of a book (no, really: trying entering a railway station after you've read it and tell me you weren't fighting the urge to shout "A train! A train! A train! A train!" like a kid on a sugar high).

But back to the villanelle: I realised, when I saw the pantoum in last month's submissions, that at The Sideways Door, I have never offered a prompt that was purely about the form. So this month, I want to celebrate the villanelle and its infinite variety. See Auden above; but also Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" that disguises the pain of forgetting with gentle good humour. Notice the way she changes the "disaster" line each time it's used.


Then there's the villanelle James Joyce made his character, Stephen Dedalus write in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - "The Villanelle of the Temptress" it's called, and if you thought James Joyce was all difficult verbal dazzle, here's where you can see the dazzle without the difficulty. And the result, from the pen of Joyce's protagonist, is quite charming.

In the bleak hands of Sylvia Plath, the villanelle is "The Mad Girl's Love Song" alternately annihilating the world and hoping she can conjure something out of it. And of course, the most famous villanelle of them all, the death-defying rage of Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night".

This month, write a villanelle. Stay strictly within the form, which you can read about here. Your poem should be of nineteen lines over six stanzas, of which five are tercets and the closing stanza a quatrain. The opening stanza's first and third lines should be the third line of alternating stanzas, and should close the quatrain and the poem.

There's not much wriggle room here, so you'll have to have a very clear idea about what the subject of your poem is and how the repetitions can be worked into the pattern of your poem.

Read the poems linked to, read about the form and work on your attempt until you have the best version of it ready to share. Send in your submissions by the August 20 to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com.

Last updated: August 04, 2015 | 19:57
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