Rhyme’s Reason – The Repetitions Build the Villanelle- Villanelles by Auden and Bishop

John Hollander – Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse (Yale Nota Bene)

I love poetry but I have never found it easy to get excited about spondees, trochees and anapests. It would probably be of great benefit to me if I could, however there is something about books that discuss metre and prosody that clamps down on my brain. Perhaps I have never got used to the idea that verses can have feet, but more likely I find it depressing that people can write about the most exciting and adventurous way of writing – poetry – in prose which is pinch-faced with lumbago. There are exceptions to everything and one of the most pleasant I have found is John Hollander’s book Rhyme’s Reason. The secret in the book is not just that Hollander is a poet and is interested in what poetry does and not just the rules which try to govern it, but that he uses his own verse examples to explain metre and form. He uses tercets to describe tercets, quatrains to describe quatrains. Various kinds  of sonnets tell us how the various kinds of sonnets work. Here he tells us how couplets and caesura work and then illustrates the difference between end-stopped lines and enjambment:

In couplets, one line often makes a point
Which hinges on its bending, like a joint;
The sentence makes that line break into two.
Here’s a caesura: see what it can do.
(And here’s a gentler one, whose pause, more slight,
Waves its two hands, and makes what’s left sound right.)

A line can be end-stopped, just like this one,
Or it can show enjambment, just like this
One, where the sense straddles two lines: you feel
As if from shore you’d stepped into a boat;

And here is how Hollander describes  how the fiendishly difficult villanelle is written by using a villanelle. Quite a feat, a bit like a trapeze artist giving a running commentary on what they are doing while turning in the air.

This form with two refrains in parallel?
(Just watch the opening and the third line.)
The repetitions build the villanelle.

The subject thus established, it can swell
Across the poet-architect’s design:
This form with two refrains in parallel

Must never make them jingle like a bell,
Tuneful but empty, boring and benign;
The repetitions build the villanelle

By moving out beyond the tercet’s cell
(Though having two lone rhyme-sounds can confine
This form). With two refrains in parallel

A poem can find its way into a hell
Of ingenuity to redesign
The repetitions. Build the villanelle

Till it has told the tale it has to tell;
Then two refrains will finally intertwine.
This form with two refrains in parallel
The repetitions build: The Villanelle.



Here are two  of the most famous  villanelles of the 20th  Century. The first one sticks to the rules described by Hollander, the second gives the refrains some slight variations :


Time can say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time can say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time can say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away?
Time can say nothing but I told you so.
If I could tell you, I would let you know.

WH Auden


One Art   

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

by Elizabeth Bishop



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