Elements of style.
While the villanelle’s repeating lines and constant rhyme scheme requires deftness in choosing an end-of-line word with a multiple rhyming syllable, its construction falls right into the lap of storytelling. Like stories, villanelles tend to have a beginning element (first tercet), development (second through fourth tercets) and resolution/conclusion (final quatrain). Thus, they feel rhythmic and musical to the spoken voice, and they build in momentum, intensity, and impact.
When beginning to compose your villanelle, spend extra time brainstorming and revising the two refrains. Because they’ll repeat several times throughout the poem, these lines will be your reader’s focus. The other content should work to alter the meaning of the refrains as they repeat throughout the piece. This will heighten your reader’s experience of the language the material will remain, but the message will twist and change as the poem progresses.
Attention to detail.
A recent villanelle by New Formalist adherent Harvey Stanbrough (from his National Book Award-nominated collection, Beyond the Masks) illustrates the process of writing the form. Stanbrough’s poem, "Roses?", draws from his skill as an astute observer. When he teaches observation workshops, Stanbrough often sends students into a grove of trees. He instructs them to look at the bark and write about the shades, textures, and striations they see. If they write material like, "The bark is brown," he sends them back into the grove because he, the poet, sees countless shades of brown, as well as other colors.
This process of returning is similar to a reader’s experience with the villanelle. As the reader rediscovers the refrains as they repeat through the poem, he or she will learn something new about the poem and themselves. Pay special attention to how your refrains contort and change in this verse form.
Setting the tone.
To begin, Stanbrough sets up the poem by creating a fine rhyming couplet (the baseline couplet) that will become the alternating refrain lines. He then splits the couplet with a movement line, completing the opening tercet:
When pink and red entwine, their dreams to share
and climb as one, combining strength and grace,
then will the scents of roses fill the air.
He’s already characterized the two roses and their life mission: to grow as one. This metaphor for sacred relationship also shows the vital role of the first tercet in setting the tone for the villanelle. The sounds Stanbrough chose to serve as his two root rhymes (-air/-are and –ace) feed countless rhyming words, which is the villanelle writer’s goal. He has already made his job easier.
Every word counts.
Stanbrough begins his development phase by focusing on the pink rose, but then brings us back to the core theme by closing with each half of the baseline couplet. He provides succinct descriptions of the rose’s feminine attributes in just two lines and 20 syllables per stanza, then "sings" the refrain. Every word counts in villanelle.
The pink, its petals soft, its scent a rare
and gentle one, will take its rightful place
when pink and red entwine, their dreams to share.
Notice how Stanbrough adds to the sensation of this pink-red combination. Not only do we understand how the colors will work together, but we have this sense of smell that could heighten the experience. You almost have to wonder about the refrain, as well. Can we think of the dreams of these roses as their scents? Here’s the next stanza:
No longer will the wind easily pare
the strengthened petals from the coral face;
then will the scents of roses fill the air.
At this point in the villanelle writing process, poets should start to gain a realization of how well their refrains will repeat and work throughout the piece. Although you’ve already give your refrains a lot of thought prior to even beginning your poem, here’s an optimum place to pause and revise.
Stanbrough proceeds to describe how the masculinity of the red rose will be softened and humbled by joining with the pink rose. The opening two lines of each stanza fuse so tightly with the bottom refrain line that each tercet could stand alone as a mini-poem. In addition, the poem builds through its rethinking and reconfiguration of the refrains:
The red, upon a stem that’s long and fair,
will learn humility and grow in grace
when red and pink entwine, their dreams to share.
No longer will pride outweigh the carethat ‘neath the sun, all have an equal place;
then will the scents of roses fill the air,
Then the conclusion: how red and pink will grow as one, having fused their strengths and either shorn away or transformed their weaknesses. The final line is nothing less than the reward of a deep love as it touches those around the two roses.
and each of them, with petals strong and fair,
will give and take with ease and grow in pace
when red and pink entwine, their dreams to share,
Then will the scents of roses fill the air.
Stanbrough closes the poem with complete smoothness and grace, not only showing sensitivity to his subject but also good craftsmanship. While being kept distant throughout the entirety of the poem, the two refrains come together (much like the two roses do). Just as the petals "will give and take with ease and grow and pace," these two refrains fuel the blooming of this villanelle.
So as you begin to construct your own villanelle, think about how you’re going to take advantage of this unique form. Stanbrough focuses his poem on two distinct roses coming together, and this reads as a perfect match for the eventual coming together of the two refrains of the villanelle. How are you going to match the content to the movement of the form?