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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Villanelles need something worth repeating

Do you find yourself saying the same thing, over and over? Great! Try a villanelle.

Start by writing a sentence stating a strong opinion, belief, warning, or lament.

Say, for example, you wonder if it’s always right or wise for victors in war to redesign a culture. Can an outsider really know what will work best for a people with a different geographical landscape, different natural resources, or different traditions? I had those thoughts as I tried to convey my father’s questions and war experiences in a series of poems, which brought to mind these two lines: “We come along and tell them what to do/ but who knows what is right for them or true?”

Shape your two key lines or sentences into iambic pentameter.

As discussed in a previous article, “Scan a poem. Catch the beat,” an iamb is a two-syllable foot with the accent on the second syllable, and pentameter (penta meaning five) is a line of poetry whose meter (measurement) consists of five feet.

For example, the first line to be repeated in my villanelle has five straight iambs, while the rhyming line has four iambs with a spondee (two-syllable foot with both syllables stressed) to give a little variation without losing either the pentameter length of the line or the iambic beat:

we COME/ aLONG/ and TELL/ them WHAT/ to DO


Follow the traditional pattern of a villanelle.

This form of traditional poetry consists of 19 lines with five stanzas of three lines each and a quatrain (four lines) at the end.

After placing the lines you will repeat in the first and third lines of your first verse, you then alternate those lines throughout the poem, bringing them together at the end to close the poem. As you might imagine, though, this could get boring! So the catch is to have a slight variation, say, in the connotations of your key rhymes, as the poem builds momentum and deepens its meaning.

Use easy-to-rhyme rhymes.

Another trick to writing a successful villanelle comes in finding words that readily rhyme but contribute to the meaning of the poem. Since you only have two rhyming sounds for the whole poem, give plenty of thought (and ear!) to rhyme A for the two key lines you repeat. Also, you need new words with an A rhyme for the first line of every verse.

Consider, too, the sounds and meanings available in rhyme B since that sound will resound from the second line of every verse. For example, rhyme A in my villanelle echoes do/ true and rhyme B way/say, both of which offered many rhyming words I could choose from as the poem proceeded.

Trying to Get the Story Straight
by Mary Harwell Sayler

We come along and tell them what to do
and pay their workers in a different way,
but who knows what is right for them or true?

Demands made on the rich are rare and few,
but the poor have little choice in what we say
when we come along and tell them what to do

about living their own lives, but tell me. Who
can speak for another or even know how to pray
for what’s best for them – or right or true?

With food scarce, black market prices are too
high for anyone but the very rich to pay
unless we come along and tell them what to do

with their own money, capping costs, so you
and I can afford things too, if we have our say,
but who knows what is right for them or true?

Workmen stand around like there’s nothing to do!
And standing in rubble, they laze the day away
until we come along and tell them what to do,
but who knows what is right for us – or true?

(c) 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, from (c) 2002 Winning the Wars chapbook


  1. Sounds like something I once tried to write but most of the formatting sounds repetitive. Maybe, I'll give it another whirl someday!

  2. Hi Mary. Love your site. I have been a poet forever and love to support others. You can see some of my poetry on my blog at mike54martin.com
    Good luck
    Mike Martin

  3. Thanks, Mike. I left a comment on your nature article - enjoyed it.

    TDR, hope you had a chance to play with villanelles again, but if the form doesn't work for you, maybe you're just not obsessive!

  4. It's wonderful to see someone so obviously in love with traditional forms. Great site. (FYI: Found it through The Blog Zone on linked in.)

  5. Good to know how you found the blog! Thanks. Actually, I love most types and forms of poetry but find that many poets tremble at the thought of traditional poetry (or disdain it), sometimes for lack of information. However, the more we learn about poetry forms, the more options we have available, and the more we learn about techniques, the better equipped we are to do on purpose what we’ve probably been doing instinctively. Hope this blog helps. If so, pass it on! Thanks.