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My Favorite Contemporary Villanelles

The Villanelle

The Villianelle is an extremely tight form with French origin. The beauty of the Villianelle falls within how the poet uses two repetitive refrains.

Not only is this the beauty of the poem but also it's biggest challenge. Due to these refrains being repeated throughout the poem they must be memorable and fit into the puzzle of the poem.

The Villianelle is made of nineteen lines divided into six stanzas. The six stanzas are broken down into four tercets and two quatrains. The poem centers on the turning of two rhymes and two refrains as discussed above. The refrains consist of lines one and three in the first stanza and three and four in the last.

The rhyme scheme is as follows:

Stanza 1 - (A1)b(A2)

Stanza 2 - ab(A1)

Stanza 3 - ab(A2)

Stanza 4 - ab(A1)

Stanza 5 - ab(A2)

Stanza 6 - ab(A1)(A2)

(A1)=First Refrain

(A2)=Second Refrain

The lines may be of any length.

The magic of the Villianelle as you will see below lies within the refrain as I have described above. The choice of refrain and rhyme in the Villianelle can either make or break the poem. The poems I have included below display a great mastery of the use of repitition through refrain.

Theodore Reothke

Theodore Reothke

The Waking

"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

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We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me; so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go."

by Theodore Reothke, 1953 from "The Collected Poems of Theodore Reothke" Doubleday & Company Inc.

Due to format issues the poem is not reproduced exactly as seen in print.

Theodore Reothke and his "The Waking"

Theodore Reothke was born in Saginaw Michigan in 1908 where he spent his childhood in his father's 25 acre greenhouses. Theodore stated that "the greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven on earth."

"The Waking" is a perfect example of the use of refrain in the Villanelle. Let us take a look at the two refrains he chose and how they affect the meaning of the poem.

The first refrain (A1) is "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" and the second refrain (A2) "I learn by going where I have to go." Both of these refrains can stand alone and hold within them the entire theme for the poem.

Reothke shows us that in the Villanelle the strongest reason for repitition would be to help strengthen any themes you want the reader to center on. "The Waking" discusses the journey of life.

The beginning of this journey begins with an awakening and a slow entrance into the world. Then, in the process of the saunter, one falls upon the lessons necessary to live through our experiences.

Further examination of the poem shows that Theodore realized that the movement of the refrains throughout the poem reflect the footsteps each of us take in our growing up.

For instance he discusses the lessons learned through friendship when he asks if the reader is a friend. He then goes on to talk about valuable experiences with nature and the idea of God.

He takes us back to the refrains in the final stanza, and ties everything together. He shows in the final stanza how important it is to take ones time in the journey of life and learn the lessons that are being placed in front of you.

A question I always ask myself when reading a poem in a specific form is does the poet choose the form to fit his/her ideas or does his/her ideas fall into a form. I feel that Reothke had already chosen an idea for his refrains before choosing the form.

The villanelle allows, with the opening and the closing of the poem, to begin with the refrains and then to end with them. This reason is why I believe Reothke had chosen his refrains to fit into the Villanelle form because he had in mind a journey he wished to describe and to bring the reader full circle.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov


"Maybe it is true we have to return

to the black air of ashcan city

because it is there the most life was burned,

as ghosts or criminals return?

But no, the city has no monopoly

of intense life. The dust burned

golden or violet in the wide land

to which we ran away, images

of passion sprang out of the land

as whirlwinds or red flowers, your hands

opened in anguish or clenched in violence

under that sun, and clasped my hands

in that place to which we will not return

where so much happened that no one else noticed,

where the city's ashes that we brought with us

flew into the intense sky still burning."

by Denise Levertov, 1958 from "Collected Earlier Poems:1940-1960" New Directions Publishing Company

Due to format issues the poem is not reproduced exactly as seen in print.

Denise Levertov and her "Obsessions"

Denise Levertov was born in Ilford, Essex. Her father was a Russian Hasidic Jew during World War I and due to ill treatment moved to Essex. While in Essex her father converted to Christianity.

In 1947 Denise married Mitchell Goodman, an American author, and moved to New York City. Shortly after her move to the US she divorced Mitchell but still became a naturalized citizen.

During her writing career she studied under the Black Mountain Poets and was influenced greatly by William Carlos Williams.

When the Veitnam War began Denise wrote most of her poems about the politics of war. She stated that it was a poets duty to bring to light the horrors of war and because of this she was considered a part of the beat poets. The beat poets were trying to make a stand against the war themselves.

"Obsessions" has many layers to it and the use of the villanelle seems to only be a small entrance into the power of her poem. I am going to discuss how I believe Denise used the villanelle and then leave the rest of the poem for you, the reader, the ponder on.

Unlike Roethke, who used the refrains to strengthen his theme, Denise uses the refrains in the first stanza to bring the reader into her imagery. She then uses the repetitive nature of the refrain throughout the poem to almost break apart the first stanza, almost like an explanation.

This opening, or flowering, of her "ashcan city", begins to take on a new life with each stanza's use of refrain. Then she neatly wraps up the poem by taking us back to the imagery of the first stanza through the use of the refrain.

I would like to point out that Denise uses the language and verbage of the primary refrains instead of an actual copy of the refrain in the stanzas. This brings me to a point I have been wanting to discuss.

I feel that people tend to move away from form and into free verse because they feel that form has too many rules and regulations that make the poetry stiff and inaccessible. Denise took her stand as a modern poet and played with the form to create what she had desired to create.

She was still able to use the power of the refrain and repitition in the Villanelle but was able to do so in a manner that seemed less formal. There is no law saying that to follow a form you need to follow the recipe exactly.

Use your creativity, figure out what the form can accomplish, and make it your own.


Verlie Burroughs from Canada on January 23, 2018:

Thanks for this Jamie. Just appreciating Roethke's Villanelle 'The Waking', hadn't realized it was a villanelle, should have spotted that a mile away.

Jamie Lee Hamann (author) from Reno NV on April 04, 2014:

I am excited to read some of the poems you have been working on when you get your computer issues sorted out. Thank you Romeos Quills. Jamie

I hope to read a few more villanelles, I enjoy the ones you have already shared. I hope you have a great day Jo. Jamie

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on April 04, 2014:

Jamie, I love this form of poetry and even had a go at writing a few. Thank you for sharing this, I know it will be very useful to me. take care and my best to you.

Romeos Quill from Lincolnshire, England on April 03, 2014:

Some great, in-depth information about this particular style Jamie; interesting to see how your two chosen structuralists had their different approaches to the same form. Hopefully, your deconstruction by explosion will add to the enjoyment of verse and not detract from the occasional magic and wonder it can create without blinding with science, so to speak.

Additionally,would love to partake in this poetry challenge but cannot publish here at the present, ( though have written a fresh poem for each day so far ). Have you ever tried rhetorical inversions ( chiasmus ) and parallel structure? I'm glad for you that the forms add to your enjoyment and were taught by a pro; I was self-taught and to be honest, found the restrictions of styles too stifling and dull for the kind of work that folk liked to read - whatever works I suppose.

Anyway, enjoy a fair eve;

Best Wishes,


Faith Reaper from southern USA on April 03, 2014:

Hi Jamie,

Home now and pinned, tweeted and shared with HP.


Faith Reaper

Jamie Lee Hamann (author) from Reno NV on April 03, 2014:

Thank you Faith and Audrey. I am glad you are enjoying my submissions so far. I am excited to move forward. Jamie

Audrey Howitt from California on April 03, 2014:

I really enjoy Levertov's work--I was introduced to her work on another poetry site that I visit from time to time--Thank you for this piece--It was one I had not read before!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on April 03, 2014:

Wow Jamie, I thoroughly enjoyed your wonderful hub here on the Villianelle! I learned so much. I can see why you used the word magic in referencing the Villianelle, being they are truly magical. Up and more, and I will pin, tweet and share when I arrive home as I am on my phone. I can tell already, we are all going to learn so much during this wonderful month of April!

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