The attraction of the Villanelle

Poets are perverse. In the mid-19th century William Ernest Henley wrote what he intended to be a self-descriptive poem about a strict verse form called the Villanelle. How strict is the Vilanelle? Let’s just say the Villanelle is as artificial as a Fabergé egg. It repeats, not merely two rhymes, but two whole lines throughout the poem. Henley’s message in his villanelle is that the Villanelle is unfit for serious poetry.


A Dainty Thing’s the Vilanelle


(William Ernest Henley)


A DAINTY thing’s the Villanelle,                      a1

Sly, musical, a jewel in rhyme,                       b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


A double-clappered silver bell                        a

That must be made to clink in chime,             b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1


And if you wish to flute a spell,                      a

Or ask a meeting ‘neath the lime,                  b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


You must not ask of it the swell                     a

Of organs grandiose and sublime —               b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1


And, filled with sweetness, as a shell             a

Is filled with sound, and launched in time,    b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


Still fair to see and good to smell                   a

As in the quaintness of its prime,                   b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle,                        a1

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2


As if to prove Henley not only wrong but lacking in foresight, several well-known poets have produced powerful poems in the verse form, Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, being the most notable. Its first tercet is instantly recognisable.


Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Is the Villanelle a viable verse form? James Fenton in his 2002 “An introduction to English poetry” makes the claim, “Few poets have written a Villanelle worth reading, or indeed regret not having done so.” I’m not sure in the 21st Century that he is correct. Enough evidence exists of other outstanding poets, attracted to rhyme, at least trying on the corset of the Villanelle, including WH Auden and  Sylvia Plath.

And a host of others, influenced by the New Formalism have followed suit. Amanda French, who has gone to the lengths of publishing a website dedicated to her dissertation on the Villanelle, writes: “I have compiled a list of villanelles indicating that over a hundred villanelles have been published in reputable literary journals and books since 1985, and I am not so simple as to suppose that this constitutes the entirety even of published villanelles from that period.”

Fenton’s broader point, however, is that the poet’s choice in writing is not between the chains of artificial forms like the Vilanelle and free verse, but in finding through experiment with form the right method of expression for our particular needs: “The choice is between the nullity and vanity of our first efforts, and the developing of a sense of idiom, form, structure, metre, rhythm, line — all the fundamental characteristics of this verbal art. Of course our first attempts will be vain. They will be vain because they must be ambitious.”

For me the attraction of the Villanelle came with picking up a slim volume of William Empson’s verse and chancing on this 1937 poem:

Slowly the Poison the Whole Bloodstream Fills


William Empson


Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


It is not your system or clear sight that mills

Down small to the consequence a life requires;

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.


They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills

Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires;

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills

Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.


Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.

The complete fire is death. From partial fires

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


It is the poems you have lost, the ills

From missing dates, at which the heart expires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.


I was struck by the sheer vigour of the poem, its emotional and intellectual force. Strict verse, however, needs skill not to overbalance. Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song begins:


I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)


The poem’s central idea is brilliant, but this is far from the edgy poetry that propelled Plath into a singular fame. It is perilously close to Wendy Cope’s light verse in tone. This is the risk of formal verse

Many poets today will choose free verse, the dominant form in the English-speaking world, unfettered, unchained, wild. Superb, affecting poems are written in free verse all the time, by poets who have long forgotten rhyme and metre, which they consign to limericks and other humorous expression. But much free verse is flaccid, meandering and timid. Often it displays a deliberate obscurity, as if to conceal the vacuous nature at the heart of the exercise. Fenton also comments in his book on modern poetry’s desertion of music and of voiced performance in favour of the printed line. I wonder whether, in addition, the discipline of rhyming verse might not reveal to would-be poets themselves the weakness of the some of the lines they pen.








The Red Wheelbarrow

By Reg Rumney

Not much depends on the red wheelbarrow
Not much today and little tomorrow.
The red enamel’s glazed with water. So?
The chickens, white or black, bestow
No meaning on the scene, nothing profound.
Two colours, two objects, things found
In the yard, but who or when, why or what?
Left out the picture, out the plot.
We’ll never know and simply have to guess
Or torture the symbols till they confess.

A poetic manifesto of sorts

I foresee a coming earthquake

In verse, the death of diffidence:

The driver will no more dispense

too little fuel, too much brake


And crawl along the roads of sense

Like someone stoned. A poet in fear

The audience may find him clear

Instead of distant, dark and dense.


Politeness! Fuck it, let’s appear

To give a damn about the mind

And heart and world at least. Go find

Your lust and love: seek far and near.


And shout out loud to humankind

Your pain and joy, defy all fake

Humility. We will not make

Our voices small or too refined.


The time has passed to be too tame

To take the stage and to declaim.


And suddenly …

Re-reading the poems of the great Italian Hermetic poets it strikes me again with some force how much understanding poetry is not a matter of analysis. Take this poem by Salvatore Quasimodo.

Ed è subito sera
Salvatore Quasimodo

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

And suddenly it is evening

Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world
pierced by a ray of sunlight:
and suddenly it is evening.

The shock of recognition when you first read the lines overcomes a desire to break up the words and examine them under the microscope of whatever your pet theory may be. They are stark and immediate and directly meaningful.

However, I believe translation to be a valuable method of sharpening a poet’s understanding of how to write. Translation illuminates how slippery words are and how much imagination creates meaning. A translator has had a go at renewing the poem with new English words.

(My apologies for not posting for so long)

beyond touch, by Arja Salafranca

Beyond touch – Poems by Arja Salafranca

I can think of no greater compliment to a poet than to say that you have read all the poems in a volume. Often, I dip into poetry books, reading some poems that look promising, or which particularly resonate, and pass over the rest. I read all of the poems in ‘beyond touch’ by Arja Salafranca.

One reason for this is that their form, characterized by narrative, with closely observed details, sometimes journalistic, allows for easy access, superficially at least. Meaning, however, is just out reach of the lens (a metaphor the poet employs) and left to the reader to divine.

A lot of modern verse is difficult, sometimes difficult because of the profundity of the poet’s thought, sometimes difficult because the poet hasn’t thought through her ideas. Modern poets contort language in trying to make meaning of the world, sometimes using tortuous metaphors and tortured sentences. An opposite phenomenon, famously evident in the works of Cavafy, is to use deliberately ordinary and unornamented language.

Another phenomenon is the absence of context, a style that allows for powerful condensation but can leave readers in the dark questioning “where, what, when”.

‘beyond touch’ tends to rely on plain statement, enlivened by only occasional imaginative figures of speech, and context is clear. So, the idea of being a tourist, an outsider to other’s happiness occurs at the end of a poem that starts with a mundane list of names:

I scurry on, join a group of Spanish women
Excitedly exploring the bullring.
I look at them a tourist to their joy.

– The English cemetery

All the verse is, for me, at the very least interesting, and at best, moving. Part of my fascination lies in the way the poems keep their distance, actual and emotional, from their subjects. Passion is evident but kept in check.

In the poem, Dachau, for example, the poet adopts a professional stance in contemplating the horror the concentration camp represents but struggles to keep the horror from breaking through her defences.

Days later, and I can’t look.
I thought it had not affected me.
Walking around, taking notes for a story,
taking photos of a place that is not beautiful,
listening to a guide tell us of the horrors.
Only once, alone in the cement corridor
of the VIP prison unit did I feel it,
what went on there.
And I almost ran towards the light
coming from the door ajar at the end of the corridor.
– Dachau

Some of the poems in the book are about photographs or paintings, and I couldn’t help thinking that some of the poems are verbal photographs, slices of time, decisive moments, or realistic paintings. In the way that expert photographers do, the poems present the external face of things hinting at the internal life in the light of the eternal.

A man, having his head shaved,
Highlighted by the dusk of early evening.
All around him, gathering darkness, except his head,
This small stall, lit by phosphorescence,
Haloed by a weird greenish purple light.
A flash of colour.
I drive on.
– Joburg pix, not taken

The poet is compelled to observe, to seek illumination, whether the subject is anonymous or deeply personal:

Later I turn over,
To look at your face in
The darkness, lit up by the light
Falling from your skylight,
There’s the soft curl of a smile
Around your mouth.
My eyes probe yours,
But we say nothing.
– The Way

I have only quoted snippets, because the power of the poems lies in the cohesive stories they tell – or photographs they take – whether they deal with the pain and pleasure of love, or the alienation of not quite belonging, especially in traversing nationalities.

I look forward to Arja’s next volume.

No more poetry?

I was always surprised at the number of people Harry Owen managed to entice to his open mike Reddits’ poetry readings in Grahamstown. It may partly be the nature of the residents of Grahamstown. It’s also that Harry’s Reddits’ events made poetry accessible and fun.

Poetry or more accurately verse is not exactly, let’s say “popular”. We accept this somehow, but do not question why enough. Few read poetry, and fewer are prepared to say why.

Some people think poetry is like a crossword, or a dead language like Latin, that has to be puzzled through.

Many people seem to think poetry is just notes about your life, sometimes obscure notes, made instantly into poetry by being expressed as lines scattered across a page. Free verse has encouraged this.

Mind you the past produced reams of properly rhyming and scanning verse that differed little in pretentiousness and banality.

Anyway, in the light of our silence about poetry denialism, I was pleased to see that someone called derek beaulieu (pretentiously lower case by design) has written something (a book of verse?) called “Please, No More Poetry“. It contains these, and other, provocative lines:

Poetry is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
Poetry has little to offer outside of poetry itself.
Poetry, sadly, knows it’s poetry, while writing doesn’t always know it’s writing.

As the old Nedbank ad used to say, “Makes you think, doesn’t it?”


Gained in translation

Again, it has struck me that translation surfaces the issue of meaning in verse. When I was studying English literature, the assumption seemed to be that there was only one true reading of a literary work. Poems could, as it were, be unlocked by sufficient effort and intelligence. Our ideas of the reality of communication have changed: we think now of various ways any communication can be reacted to, and of how we create meaning when we read, or listen or view, rather than simply receiving transmitted meanings.

What occasions my thinking about translation are poems in the White Hail in the Orchard, a slim volume written by the late Patrick Cullinan and published in 1984.

A good part of this fine volume is taken up with translation of verse by the Italian poet Eugenio Montale – or rather to use Cullinan’s words, Versions:

The poems that follow are all based on original work by Eugenio Montale. Though not trying to alter meanings or force intentions, I have tried to make a poem in English, using Montale’s Italian as a model. I have therefore called these ‘versions’ rather than translations.

Would that translators in general were this honest. In this statement Cullinan is acutely aware of the transformation not to say mutation of intended meaning inherent in all translation. However careful our translation, can we be sure we have captured the poet’s preferred understanding of the poem? I don’t think so, but if we are completely cavalier in translation the result is a new poem, as I have pointed out. Yet clinging too closely to the words and rhythms of the original can have a clunky result.

Even the best-intentioned of translators can do mortal hurt to the literature they translate. Take the King James Version, beautiful work of poetry that it is. I don’t know what God meant, but sometimes I suspect he didn’t mean what the King James version sometimes puts in the mouths of the persona that people this Bible. For meaning I at times prefer more modern translations – or versions. But I return to the majestic, and sometimes crazy, phrasing of the King James Bible.

Are Cullinan’s versions more or less true to the original? Thanks to the Internet we can judge for ourselves. The New Criterion website has the original Italian and Jonathan Galassi’s translation

This is the original Italian version:

Per album
by Eugenio Montale

che il cuore non invecchia
il pentalaureato
si guarda nello specchio
con orrore.

Here is one of the short Montale versions in Cullinan’s book:

One for the Album
[Cullinan’s version

Assured that the heart
never grows old,
the graduate with five degrees
stares at himself in the mirror,

This is the Galassi translation:

For an album
that the heart never ages
the man weighed down with honors
looks at himself in the mirror
with horror.

I prefer Cullinan’s version, which substitutes for the “man weighed down with honors” the more specific “the graduate with five degrees”. I can see how some might say Cullinan was taking liberties. Montale deliberately uses one word on the first line, “Assured”, to give it weight.

Anyway, while we blithely invent new poems from other’s work, let’s try to imagine what we would feel if it happened to us that some poet somewhere else took our fine verse and turned it into something strange – assuming we could understand the translator’s language.

I offer my own brief verse:

Mors ultima lingua
Death is the final audit, eh?
The poet finds to his consternation
When dawns that sad and final day,
It's not audit but translation.