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Dylan Thomas Will Love These 5 Villanelle Secrets

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We’ve all heard the phrase: villanelles are the bane of any poet’s existence. But don’t fret, I’m here to arm everyone with five tools (secrets, shh don’t tell anyone) to take down this archvillain(elle) with ease.

Do You Want To Build A Snowman, I Mean Villanelle


A villanelle is harmless once we get to know it. All villanelles are built up of five tercets (three-lined stanza) and one quatrain (four-line stanza) for a total of nineteen (19) lines. Of those tercets and lonely quatrain, there are two refrains (repeating lines) and two repeating rhymes.


I know this is a lot of information to chew on, but don’t fret, villanelles may put on a tough appearance but deep down they are poetic teddy bears.


The villanelle has been considered pastoral or lyrical in years past, but most contemporary poets have broken that norm and explored other poetic themes. One trait a villanelle must adhere to however is repetition.



"Refrain" From Thinking Too Hard (A Template)


Before we get too stressed, remember that villanelles perform most of the work for us. There is little original thought needed at all because of the refrains.


This is why my second villanelle secret is to figure out the refrains first, before writing anything else. There are a couple of ways we can do this.


  1. Concentrate on a theme. Contemplate what we would like the villanelle to be focused on. Suchita Senthil Kumar has some great poetry prompts to get us started.

  2. Get into the lyrics. Traditionally, the verse refrain is used a lot in folk songs. Listening to how refrains are used in classical songs can help us understand how refrains are better utilized in our villanelles. Some great songs to listen to are “Just The Way You Are” by Billie Joel, “Something” by George Harrison, and “Yesterday” by the Beatles.

  3. A little studying never hurt anyone. Perhaps brushing up on what refrains consist of and how they work in a poem can help us as well. This MasterClass article How to Use Refrain in Poetry: Poetry Refrain Guide is a great place to start.


Once we’ve learned all we can about refrain, and we’ve selected the two refrains we’d like to use, write them down using this free downloadable template below.

Poetry Cove Villanelle Template
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Download PDF • 242KB

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It's About The Stories We Tell, And The Pyramids We Climb


Do not go gently into that villanelle goodnight just yet… we are exploring the tombs of Freytag’s Pyramid next! Well, maybe not real mummies, but we are going to explore how we can apply this essential plot structure to our villanelles.


Though Freytag’s pyramid is typically used in narrative storytelling, such as novels and short stories, the premise remains the same when applied to poetry. Freytag’s pyramid consists of five different tombs… I mean plot points.

1.) How To Apply The Introduction

We can use the first two tercets to set up the introduction of the villanelle poem. The opening line of a poem should grab the reader’s attention, invoke the thematic intentions of the poem, and give an insight into the poet’s writing style. Let’s look at W.H. Auden’s villanelle “If I Could Tell You” for example. Listen closely to the tone of the poem as Poetry City recites this romantic villanelle.


2.) How To Apply The Rising Action

3.) How To Apply The Climax

4.) How To Apply The Falling Action

5.) How To Apply The Dénouement

What makes Freytag’s pyramid perfect for writing a villanelle is it breaks down the structure of the poem into five perfect parts. Coincidentally, this is the same number of tercets within a villanelle.




The Rhyme Is In The Pudding


I would be lying if I said this fourth secret wasn't a simpleton. The rhyme scheme for a villanelle is simple syrup at best, consisting of only two alternating end rhymes. Yes, that is it. I'm not joshing.


If we want to minimize our mental casualties while writing a villanelle, my suggestion is to choose two common end rhymes (like -ing or -ed) with a large lexicon to choose from.


Use words that have the following vowel sounds to make writing the next villanelle very easy ("a" as in ate, "e" as in glee, "o" as in owe, and "oo" as in fool).


Enjoy the pleasure of rhyming with David Silverstein, founder of Amaze PBC, in this TED-Ed video.



I'm Free As A Bird Now

“The consequence of writing is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing until you get to the right meanings in the right words. Only in the end will you know what you are saying.” —Peter Elbow

The concept for our villanelles can often come off as bland, or uncertain, at first. Realistically, we have eleven of the nineteen lines to deliver our poem. The art of freewriting is a unique way of brainstorming ideas and filling in those empty spaces.


Freewriting is the process of non-stop writing in sentence and paragraph format. We can come back and format our poem later. Best practice suggests finding a place of solitude and writing non-stop for five minutes, but the key part is to write without stopping.


When we use the freewriting technique to create villanelles we are increasing the flow of ideas and decreasing the chance of accidentally censoring a good idea. We are also forgoing accuracy for content, which is better than having nothing at all. We can always edit our poem later on.



Think of our hands as worker bees and keep on buzzing. Even if that means repeating the same phrase over and over again, or writing something like “the idea will come to me” over and over again till the lightbulb turns on.


Remember how we discussed formatting afterward? Writing our poem in free verse, or blank verse is also a great way to process what we want to be written in our villanelle poem.


Learn more about writing free verse poetry here.


My What Secrets We Hold


With power comes great responsibility. Now that we've been endowed with these villanelle secrets that even Dylan Thomas will love, we can strut into our next writing project with confidence.


Keep in mind not all these secrets need to be used at once, but they sure should help us to become a villanelle master in no time.


Further Reading & Resources



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15 Comments


Sophie
Sophie
Jan 31, 2022

Hey Ken! Sorry for the late response after I arrived back home Wix wouldn't let me log into my account but we're all good now - thanks for the tip on clearing my cookies I think that did the trick! I think this is one of your best posts to date and I love how you even made templates for people to use - I really admire your dedication to helping Covers with their poetry. I also really enjoyed your humor throughout the post and I thought those heading titles were so clever. Adam and I actually read a book of all of Dylan Thomas' love letters last summer, so he does hold a special place in my heart. Though…

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Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jan 31, 2022
Replying to

Oh no worries, I'm always willing to help whenever anyone asks. At least I try to anyways.

Sadly, I'm not overly familiar with Dylan Thomas aside from the fact that I know he was a pioneer of the villanelle form. I really need to start reading more poetry if I'm to be honest. Practice what I preach.

Isn't it odd how someone can write such great prose about love, but never really know what it is like? Kind of an oxymoron, isn't it?

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Bendy
Bendy
Jan 28, 2022

I'm glad I didn't give my thoughts until now,because your blog posts have alot of replay value.

They're worth coming back too because of how much time you put in to your blog posts and this example shows that.

In terms of Vanille,allow me to say that I don't think they're hard to pull off.Just takes alot of time to pull off,yet when time is put in,they can be done marvelously.

Freewriting is a wonderful idea,literally the example of "don't think,just write". Reminds me of my very recent rewrite of a 2019 poem.

Whats interesting about any poetic form is its sets of rules and as you put it,template.

Because the way Vanille appears to be,might as well be.

I…

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Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jan 31, 2022
Replying to

As I mentioned (I think) villanelles (as well as poetry in general) benefits from some type of planning or intention behind it. Everyone's style and preferences for writing poetry is drastically unique that there really is no template, but having a guideline does help tremendously when finalizing a piece.


As you said, just keep writing.



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Suchita Senthil Kumar
Suchita Senthil Kumar
Jan 28, 2022

I've always been intimidated by villanelles because they seem complex and I've never been sure if I could write one. After this post, I'm beginning to understand this form and am excited to see what I can come up with. Thank you for these tips Ken!!

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Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jan 31, 2022
Replying to

I'm pleased to know that this villanelle post put some of your concerns at ease. Would be interested in seeing a villanelle that you've written in the future, if you were willing to share.

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Marc  Brimble
Marc Brimble
Jan 27, 2022

This is great, I love your knowledg mixed in with humerous asides and quips.

You've definitely inspired me to have a crack at this little style.

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Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jan 31, 2022
Replying to

Villanelles have a rough exterior, but deep inside, they are simply teddy bears waiting to be picked up from the shelf and brought into a loving home. (I may have received inspiration for this quote from the children's story, Corduroy.)



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.
Jan 27, 2022

Ken, I always enjoy your blogs! My first experience at writing villanelle was at the Poetry Cove Academy - I failed miserably. They're a challenging yet intriguing art form! The Rhyme is in the Pudding- is exactly what I need to keep in mind! Just two "alternating end rhymes"... This is important for me to remember! I have a tendency to overcomplicate things!


Freytag's Pyramid is an interesting and insightful guide- Thank you for this awesome and simple 5 step aid.


Your section on As Free as a Bird is so helpful to me! I always get stuck before I begin. I'm my own worst enemy that way. Your idea about JUST WRITE (as you told me on a T-Shirt-…



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Ken LeMarchand
Ken LeMarchand
Jan 31, 2022
Replying to

I was taken aback when you considered your first villanelle a miserable failure. So I will leave you with this, Garish:


There is no such thing as do or do not, there is only try.


I believe one who seeks the absence of failure doesn't really know how to live. I say keep failing because that is how we learn. Failure isn't something to be afraid of. It is something endearing, humbling, and intrinsically part of human evolution. Especially in poetry.


I adore Tom (Loki) and this reading was superb.

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