“How to Do Nothing” [villanelle poem]

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I’m thrilled to share that Untold Volumes has recently published my poem “How to Do Nothing:”

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With its 19 lines of five tercets and a final quatrain, strict aba rhyming pattern, and strategic repetition of the poem’s first and third lines, “How to Do Nothing” is a villanelle poem (unsure of the rhyme? Be sure to pronounce “route” in my Southern American twang of “r-OUT” :).

The villanelle is a French form of pastoral poetry, and the heavy repetition of the first and third lines reflects the dance-like nature of the poem. “How to Do Nothing” therefore repeats the first line “Give yourself permission to sit this one out,” and “Your sofa is the destination of the route” (with slight variations that add to the intensity) throughout the poem. These two lines become dance partners in tension, winding their way closer and closer to each other, until they finally meet at the very end of the poem. Not surprisingly, the villanelle depends on a careful selection of these first and third lines.

As the book The Making of a Poem observes regarding the villanelle, “the form refuses to tell a story. It circles around and around, refusing to go forward in any kind of linear development, and so suggesting at the deepest level, powerful recurrences of mood and emotion and memory.”

In the anthology The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, poet Molly Peacock notes that the villanelle is not only a good place to repeat an intense emotion, but also “a good place to give instructions, to give advice, or to refuse to.” Peacock additionally explains, “a good time to write a villanelle is when you have a feeling or a subject you’re afraid to write about…those two repeat lines can be like a pair of arms wrapping around you in comfort.”

Famous examples of the villanelle include “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas, and “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Not surprisingly, both of these poems explore intense emotion and grief. The book Villanelles also contains excellent traditional and contemporary examples of the form.

I’ve written on this website about my early attempts to write a villanelle, where I focused too much on metrical perfection, and less on the emotional journey of the poem. Since then, I’ve come to enjoy the dancing of the form.

Have you ever read, and/or written, a villanelle? What enchants you about the form? What challenges you?

I’d love to hear what you think!

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Photo credit: Ian Sane on VisualHunt

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