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Dylan Thomas Will Love These 5 Villanelle Secrets

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Do You Want To Build A Snowman, I Mean Villanelle

"Refrain" From Thinking Too Hard (A Template)

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

The Rhyme Is In The Pudding

I'm Free As A Bird Now

Further Reading & Resources

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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
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

  1. Learn More Details About Freytag's Pyramid

  2. How to Write a Villanelle With Sam Grudgings

  3. Writing 101: What Is Denouement?

  4. Study With Josie Alford (1.5 Hour Pomodoro With Music)

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