It’s ironic that poets, who are so often iconoclasts, have been and continue to be drawn to the limits imposed by form.
Some poets say those limits free them from their mind’s repetitive patterns. I’m in that camp. For example, writing in form forces my brain away from the patterns it wants to follow. It forces me to find and choose words I might not otherwise use. Those two things alone will force me to come up with new ideas.
So instead of form and order being the enemy of the fresh and the new, the order imposed by form can actually push the brain out of its ruts into something entirely new.
The Academy of American Poets gives this complicated but thorough definition of the villanelle:
The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.
Oy vey. And yet, the interlocking nature of the villanelle is so like the obsessions we return to over and over again in our lives. Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” is perhaps the best example of how the form can illuminate — and acknowledge — obsession.
The villanelle below is an attempt to illuminate one or two of my obsessions. When performing it at a reading, I always introduce it as a gardening poem. But of course there’s another level. “Datura” was originally published in The Hypertexts, and also appears in my book, Back East.
I choose datura from the racks of seed
And nurture them with care, although they’ll grow
Up poisonous and beautiful. I need
Their syrup-scented trumpet-blooms. Their weed-
Like vigor cures me of the winter, so
I choose datura. From the racks of seed
I choose some others, too — the hearts that bleed
In spring, the columbine, and these will grow
Not poisonous, just beautiful. These need
A simpler kind of care; such flowers breed
With ease. I need the razor’s edge, and so
I choose datura from the racks of seed.
Surprise — their family, Nightshade, Jimsonweed
And Belladonna visit me. I grow
Accustomed to poisonous beauty, need
Hypnotics causing death or merely greed
For sleep, for nature’s death-defying show.
I chose datura from the racks of seed,
As poisonous and beautiful as need.