Category Archives: Poetic Lessons

Edna St Vincent Millay

 

Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was openly bisexual and had affairs with other women and married men. When she finally married, hers was an open marriage. Her 1920 poetry collection A Few Figs From Thistles drew controversy for its novel exploration of female sexuality. She was one of the earliest and strongest voices for what became known as feminism. One of the recurring themes of her poetry was that men might use her body, but not possess her or have any claim over her. (And perhaps that their desire for her body gave her the upper hand in relationships.)

I, Being Born a Woman, and Distressed
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I, being born a woman, and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, this poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

Love Is Not All
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.

Millay is not just another penner of sonnets. Her sonnets sparkle with life and lust amid the foreshadowing of death. She also has an interesting quality of resolve: she seems willing to give herself to men, but not to give herself away. If she is playing games, she is playing them knowingly, and probably understands the rules better than her partners.


A Poetic Lesson: The Villanelle

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The House on the Hill
By Edwin Arlington Robinson

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

 
Edwin Arlington Robinson is one of my favorite American poets (see this post from several years ago). One of the things I will truly miss about teaching at my former job is having the opportunity to teach American literature. Sometimes, I wish I had gotten a master’s in American literature or literary history. If I had unlimited resources, I’d get a degree in American lit, American Art history, museum studies and probably one in religious studies, but that’s neither here nor there.

Now for the lesson on this poem. It is a poetic form of fixed verse known as the villanelle. A villanelle (also known as villanesque) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets (three line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (a four line stanza). There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. The word derives from Latin, then Italian, and is related to the initial subject of the form being the pastoral.

The rhyme-and-refrain pattern of the villanelle can be schematized as A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 where letters (“a” and “b”) indicate the two rhyme sounds, upper case indicates a refrain (“A”), and numerals (1 and 2) indicate Refrain 1 and Refrain 2. The pattern is shown as an example in the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas, which is the poem most often used as an example of a villanelle:

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.

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.

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 10 (a)
Line 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 13 (a)
Line 14 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Unlike many fixed verse poetic forms, the villanelle has no established meter, although most 19th-century villanelles have used trimeter or tetrameter and most 20th-century villanelles have used pentameter. Slight alteration of the refrain line is permissible.

The form started as a simple ballad-like song with no fixed form; this fixed quality would only come much later, from the poem “Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)” (1606) by Jean Passerat. From this point, its evolution into the “fixed form” used in the present day is debated. Despite its French origins, the majority of villanelles have been written in English, a trend which began in the late nineteenth century. The villanelle has been noted as a form that frequently treats the subject of obsessions, and one which appeals to outsiders; its defining feature of repetition prevents it from having a conventional tone.

In the villanelle’s repetition of lines, the form is often used, and properly used, to deal with one or another degree of obsession, such as in Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” amongst other examples. Repetition allows the possibility for the form to evoke, through the relationship between the repeated lines, a feeling of dislocation and is what some have termed a paradigm for schizophrenia. This repetition of lines has been considered to prevent villanelles from possessing a conventional tone and that instead they are closer in form to a song or lyric poetry. Stephen Fry says that the villanelle “is a form that seems to appeal to outsiders, or those who might have cause to consider themselves as such”, having a “playful artifice” which suits “rueful, ironic reiteration of pain or fatalism.” In spite of this, the villanelle has also often been used for light verse, as for instance Louis Untermeyer’s “Lugubrious Villanelle of Platitudes” or the song by They Might Be Giants called “Hate the Villanelle.”

On the relationship between form and content, Anne Ridler noted in an introduction to her own poem “Villanelle for the Middle of the Way” a point made by T. S. Eliot, that “to use very strict form is a help, because you concentrate on the technical difficulties of mastering the form, and allow the content of the poem a more unconscious and freer release,” which sounds so very Post Modern. In an introduction to his own take on the form entitled “Missing Dates,” William Empson suggested that while the villanelle is a “very rigid form,” W. H. Auden—in his long poem “The Sea and the Mirror”—had nonetheless “made it sound absolutely natural like the innocent girl talking.”

As an English teacher colleague once told me, fixed verse poems are fascinating because you have to have a true talent to make a poem not only conform to fixed verse rules, but to at at the same time create a poem that has meaning. Eliot might have believed free verse allowed for the unconscious to take over as the poet concentrates on form, but a poet who truly uses fixed verse must be able to master the language and the art.  Of the fixed verse forms, I think maybe the villanelle might be the easiest only because it does not follow a specific meter, which is a lesson for another week.


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