Monday, 5 July 2010

Bowl up a Villanelle

A great many of us know a line or two of a villanelle whether we are aware of it or not. They are out there and can take us by stealth. The repeated lines and rhymes, the rhythmic base, the quasihypnotic sense of recurrence speak to us almost viscerally, and help make some standout examples of the form almost unforgettable.

While the secondary lines of a villanelle may blur together in our minds, the dance of the two refrain lines – sometimes sparring, sometimes flirting, sometimes amplifying – burns them into memory.

Do not go gentle into that goodnight.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

When these refrain lines finally come together at the end of Dylan Thomas’ memorable poem, they provide a powerful conclusion to what is probably the best known villanelle in English. Stop a person in the street and it’s odds on that, with a little prompting, they will come up with at least one phrase. They did when I tried it in Freo last week but that may have been a biased sample.

My favourite villanelle, and it has been for more than twenty years, is ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop. This poem succeeds in doing what can be very difficult in a highly structured form – conveying powerful and complex feeling in a fluid and conversational way. It is also a technical tour de force, so seamless in its workings, the limits of the form become the muscle, spine and heart of the poem.

Another villanelle I really like, for very different reasons, is Western Australian poet Nicholas Hasluck’s ‘Test Cricket’. This poem shows how well the villanelle can be mobilised for satiric and humorous ends. Here the limited rhyme scheme is part of the fun, and the regimented lines are a perfect fit for the law-making efforts of the MCG.

‘Test Cricket’

Twenty-four cans is the limit each.
The MCG laid down the law.
‘What we know we have to teach.

Each esky must contain a peach,
a horseshoe roll and twenty-four.
Twenty-four cans is the limit each.’

Thirty-six would cause a screech.
Excessive drinking we all deplore.
What we know we have to teach.

A dozen bottles can fill the breach
from three o’clock to five past four.
Twenty-four cans is the limit each.

A quiet ale within our reach
is all we ask. Nothing more.
What we know we have to teach.

Heaven will be an unlicensed beach
where one imbibes through every pore.
Meanwhile, on earth, we have to teach—
Twenty-four cans is the limit each.

Taken together, the three poems cited here give a sense of the variety and possibility of the villanelle. My colleague Georgia Richter and I invite you to test your arm and bowl up one of your own. Whether it’s a peach or a lemon, we’ll be waiting in the slips.

Wendy Jenkins

(‘Test Cricket’ by Nicholas Hasluck is provided courtesy of the author.)

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