Villanelle and Sestina: the Repetitive Poetic Forms

Happy National Poetry Month. Poetry forms have largely gone the way of the dodo and jackalope, but I still have a soft spot for them. Two that have become particularly rare are the villanelle and the sestina–two forms that employ repetition to a high degree. Repetition is a particularly wonderful device to show obsession as it gives a reason for the repetitiveness. Probably the best known villanelle in English is Dylan Thomas’:

“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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.

The form, in brief, is six 3-line stanzas [tercets] of iambic pentameter with a ABA rhyme scheme until the final stanza which has a fourth line [ABAA]. Whole lines repeat with the opening line of the poem also ending the 2nd and 4th stanzas and comprising the third line of the final stanza. The line that finishes the 1st stanza also ends the 3rd, 5th and 6th stanzas. The result is the crazy tight form seen above. I’ve written one, called “Eulogy to Ezra Pound”.

My favorite form is the sestina, which works not by repeating whole lines but rather by repeating end words for the lines of each stanza by weaving the words into a new order to become the end words for the next stanza. This is done for six 6-line stanzas [sestets]. Then a final tercet uses all six key words at the midpoints and ends of the three lines. This creates a developing, evolving quality to the obsession. The first sestina was written by Sir Philip Sidney in his Arcadia. The first I saw was Sylvia Plath’s:

“Yadwigha, on a Red Couch Among Lilies”

Yadwigha, the literalists one wondered how you
Came to be lying on this baroque couch
Upholstered in red velvet, under the eye
Of uncaged tigers and a tropical moon,
Set in an intricate wilderness of green
Heart-shaped leaves, like catalpa leaves, and lilies

Of monstrous size, like no well-bred lilies.
It seems he consistent critics wanted you
To choose between your world of jungle green
And the fashionable monde of the red couch
With its prim bric-a-brac, without a moon
To turn you luminous, without the eye

Of tigers to be stilled by your eye
And body whiter than its frill of lilies:
They’d have had yellow silk screening the moon,
Leaves and lilies flattened to paper behind you
Or, at most, to a mille-fleurs tapestry. But the couch
Stood stubborn in its jungle: red against green,

Red against fifty variants of green,
The couch glared out at the prosaic eye.
So Rousseau, to explain why the red couch
Persisted in the picture with the lilies,
Tigers, snakes, and the snakecharmer and you,
And birds of paradise, and the round moon,

Described how you fell dreaming at full of moon
On a red velvet couch within your green–
Tessellated boudoir. Hearing flutes, you
Dreamed yourself away in the moon’s eye
To a beryl jungle, and dreamed that bright moon-lilies
Nodded their petaled heads around your couch.

And that, Rousseau told the critics, was why the couch
Accompanied you. So they nodded at the couch with the moon
And the snakecharmer’s song and the gigantic lilies,
Marvelingly numbered the many shades of green.
But to a friend, in private, Rousseau confessed his eye
So possessed by the glowing red of the couch which you,

Yadwigha, pose on, that he put you on the couch
TO feed his eye with red: such red! under the moon,
In the midst of all that green and those great lilies!

I’ve written three that I’ve been posting the past few weeks:
“Sestina of a Poet”.

If you’ve never tried one of these forms, do. Why not? They can turn into a bit of a puzzle. Next week, I will dissect the sonnet and talk about rhyming. If you missed it, last week I highlighted the limerick and the haiku.


7 responses to “Villanelle and Sestina: the Repetitive Poetic Forms

  1. Oh dear, this seems a bit (understatement) more complicated than Haiku! I liked your ‘Sestina of a Poet’ very much and admire your skill. Despite feeling completely out of my depth, I will attempt at least one of these forms and I will let you know once I was brave enough to do it, so that you can give me feedback.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bold move. Hopefully, you will find the challenge fun. The key is to come up with your six strong words that anchor the poem. They should be as near equal in strength as possible. Possibly aspects of the subject. The words play out in a very certain order. If you were to # the six words as they end the lines of your first stanza, it would be 1-2-3-4-5-6. For the next stanza, the order weaves into 6-1-5-2-4-3. Then, 3-6-4-1-2-5. 4th stanza is 5-3-2-6-1-4. Then, 4-5-1-3-6-2. 6th stanza is 2-4-6-5-3-1. For the final tercet, just use the six words where you can in any order as mid-line and end-line words.

      Lay out the order of the words for the first 36 lines. Allow the repetition of the word ending a stanza and then also ending the first line of the following stanza to set you up with a new focus. Each of the words will really have its own stanza with the other words supporting it. This will play into the examination of the subject from an evolving point of view.

      The final tercet is the tight understood relationship of the six words finally nestled together harmoniously.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Whispered Song of Grief (Sestina?) | My Grandfather was an Undertaker

  3. Pingback: Fear Of Rejection (Almost a Villanelle in form) | Thinking, Saying

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