Let Me Repeat That: The Prose Villanelle Bruce Holland Rogers
This column is about a fixed form first introduced in Short-short Sighted #4 in September 2008.
One of the best-known poems in the English language is “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, a poem that Thomas wrote for his dying father. One of the first things that a reader might notice about that poem is that there are two lines in the poem that repeat exactly. Do not go gentle into that good night is the first line, the sixth line, the twelfth line, and the eighteenth line of this nineteen-line poem. Rage, rage against the dying of the light is the third line, the ninth, the fifteenth, and the final line.
This poem by Thomas is an example of a villanelle. You’ll recall that rhyme schemes in poems are usually indicated with lower-case letters. The scheme for a Shakespearean sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg. The first and third lines of such a sonnet rhyme with each other, as do the second and fourth lines. The rhyme scheme of a villanelle requires some way of noting that some of the lines don’t just rhyme with other lines, but are refrains that repeat exactly. For that, we use capital letters and a superscript number: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2. One of the refrains is A1, Do not go gentle into that good night in the Thomas poem. The other refrain, Rage, rage against the dying of the light, is designated A2. Each line represented by a will be a line that rhymes with the refrains (Thomas’s rhyme words are right, bright, flight, sight, and height), while the b lines will rhyme with each other (day, they, bay, way, gay, and pray).
Which is all good to know if you are a poet planning to write a villanelle, but you might well wonder what any of this has to do with writing short-short stories. It turns out that at least three writers have been crazy enough to try to adopt the rules of the villanelle for writing prose narratives. One of my favorite examples is “Romance: A Prose Villanelle” by Rick Demarinis, a story much too long to be considered flash, but worthy of tracking down… especially if you are familiar with the conventions of formula romance novels, conventions which Demarinis gently and amusingly subverts.
Other writers who have attempted to write villanelles as prose are Barbara F. Lefcowitz, who has been been publishing such villanelles since the seventies, and yours truly. Although the three of us have approached the prose villanelle in our own idiosyncratic ways, we have all taken the paragraph as the essential poetic unit, rather than the line. Our prose villanelles are nineteen paragraphs long, and we write paragraphs that in some way follow the pattern of A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2. Our prose villanelles have some recognizable repetition so that the sixth paragraph is obviously a new iteration of the first paragraph, and the twelfth and eighteenth paragraphs will obviously be the reappearance of that same element again. However, exactly what a “refrain” is going to be in prose is up to the writer to decide.
One thing that a refrain won’t be in prose is an exact repetition of an earlier paragraph. A line of poetry is short enough to hold in the mind whole, and the reader can enjoy how the line seems to change in its meaning according to what comes before or after it. But a paragraph of prose that repeats exactly is likely to bore or irritate the reader since the repeated section is too long to hold in the mind like a phrase of verbal music. A prose refrain ought to be recognizable as the same thing coming around again, but it also needs to be different. In the sample story for this month, “Border Crossing,” the first refrain paragraphs always begin with the same words: Lately I don’t recognize this country, the land of my birth. The second refrain always starts with The border guard walked around my car. The action that follows these openings always follows a similar pattern.
As for the paragraphs that “rhyme” with each other, it’s again up to the writer to decide what this means. I think it’s important that the sense of similarity or repetition in these paragraphs should be weaker in the refrain, and I don’t think it’s important that the way in which paragraphs “rhyme” be obvious to the reader.
In fact, you can make the connection between your refrain paragraphs much more mysterious than I have done in “Border Crossing.” For me, one of the pleasures of reading a Lefcowitz villanelle lies in trying to figure out in what sense a given paragraph is a refrain or a rhyme with another. The connections between her paragraphs are often as subtle as the return of a particular theme, mood, or object.
Part of the fun of a fixed form is jumping in without knowing exactly where the form will take you. You don’t have to decide what you are going to allow as a “refrain” or a “rhyme” before you begin to write. Pick a topic and start writing. You can, in fact, ignore the rhymes and just concentrate on the refrains, in which case you don’t have any sort of technical decision to make until you get to the sixth paragraph. That paragraph will have to revisit the first paragraph. Exactly what that means is for you to decide.
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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