Friday, March 10, 2017

The Garden of Verse: Dancing the Villanelle

         Here's the beginning of a poem by Michael T. Young in the current, March 2017 issue of Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal. The title is "Expecting a Trump Presidency" which, right there, gives you some idea of what to expect from its content and, perhaps, its mood:
 It surely won’t be as bad as people say.
The news plays on our fear, exaggerates.
It’s not like they’ll be marching us away.

            The poem is written in the form called the villanelle. My only real knowledge of this form is that it was used by Dylan Thomas in a poem whose refrain is quoted as often as almost any poem produced in the 20th century. (Maybe a few lines from Robert Frost are a little bit ahead.) The refrain in Thomas's poem is: "Do no go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
            The villanelle format creates some structural impediments to keep those lines apart. The poem must have six stanzas, the first five consisting of only three lines. The two lines of the refrain are separated in the first stanza by a single, non-rhyming line. In the subsequent stanzas, the second stanza concludes with the first line of the refrain ("Do not go gentle into that good night"). The third stanza concludes with the second line of the refrain ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light"). The second line in each of these stanzas must rhyme with the second line in the first stanza.
            This pattern continues until the sixth, final stanza, when two new lines precede the two-line refrain. Only in this final stanza do those famous two lines follow one another, as they customarily are when people quote from the poem. Here's the final stanza of Thomas's famous poem:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
            It's clear the formal structure of the villanelle puts a lot of weight on those two repeated lines. Given where we are politically in this country in the first months of a new administration, I think Michael Young has met (and exceeded) that challenge in composing his refrain: "It surely won’t be as bad as people say...
It’s not like they’ll be marching us away."
            But the second hurdle, given he role that repetition must play in the poem, is to make those stanzas "go somewhere" beyond simply repeating the initial message. Repetition is a powerful effect -- some popular songs are built on almost nothing but a refrain (often repeated many, many times) -- but shades of emphasis, variation, and fuller meaning can be drawn from the same words as the poem progresses.
             In the third stanza of Young's poem the poet darkens the implication of the initial stanza by varying the wording of the refrain. You don't say "It's not like they’ll be marching us away" unless you wish to plant that very thought. It's like saying, "I won't mention my divorce." Now you've mentioned it.   
            In the third stanza that "marching away" becomes more explicit:
He wouldn’t dare to bundle us like hay,
mark those who wear hijab, open the gates,
rounding them up and marching them away.
            In the fourth stanza he darkens the implication further by expanding the range of potential victims: "It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay./ He can’t determine rights by who one dates...."
            In the final stanza the reader is advised to "Ignore the knocking. It’s just another day."... Now when the two refrain lines are paired directly, the end-rhymes fall like the closing of a trap:  
            It surely won’t be as bad as people say.
                  It’s not like they’ll be marching us away.
            Joel Johnson's poem "Dear Camille" also introduces variations in the wording of the refrains to reveal a truth about the speaker of the poem. In the first stanza we have:
Words belong in rows, even plain and clear,
a casual font on an ivory sheet.
I write because I cannot be sincere.

            In the fourth stanza, at its second repetition, that first refrain becomes: "Words belong in rows, even cold and clear." We hear that 'cold' and know that the author of this letter to poor Camille is telling us more than he may intend. And in the following stanza, the second line of the refrain has become: "I write because I hate to be sincere."
           The final stanza makes the situation explicit. It begins "A letter, rewritten, is engineered," a comment that aptly applies to the entire letter-poem. And that second refrains has turned into the coldly revealing: "I write because I loathe to be sincere."
            To read these poems in their entirety, and many others -- including lots of villanelles offering many different approaches to tailoring this seemingly tight-fitting suit of poetic clothes -- see