Preface: Dancing with the Villanelles
The villanelle is one of the most fascinating and paradoxical of poetic forms, quirky and edgy yet second to no other European form but the sonnet in importance; prone to moods of obsession and delight; structured through the marriage of repetition and surprise. No wonder it is currently enjoying such a powerful postmodern blossoming, out of long-growing premodernist roots. This book includes a sampling of some of the most interesting and significant villanelles written in English before the twenty-first century, as well as a great range of superb contemporary villanelles by a remarkable diversity of poets.
This book is likely the most comprehensive anthology devoted to a single poetic form ever assembled; because of the villanelle’s relatively brief history, it offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand how poetic forms grow, as individual poets change a poem’s shape, play with its constraints, dance with its tradition, and challenge its readers anew. The manageable focus of the form is one reason editing this book has been such a joy. Another reason is our partnership: one of us devoted to form, the other closely linked to performance, we have pooled our talents and insights with a mutual delight in which we hope our readers will share.
A glance through the book will show that it abounds with gems. Most poets write only one or two villanelles in a lifetime, and when they do so, it’s for a good reason. This is not a form that is chosen lightly. Furthermore, it’s a hard form to fake; as editors we found it quite straightforward to choose the strongest villanelles. And the villanelle has appealed to such a delicious variety of poets, from slam poets to the avant-garde and everyone in between, that readers will find this a book filled with diversity and surprises, while the quality of poetry remains remarkably and consistently high.
This book includes lyrical, spiritual, political, erotic, comical, narrative, whimsical, loving, and metaphysical villanelles. They all share a quality of freshness, an air of discovery that befits a form with a relatively short history. Unlike the sonnet the villanelle has no centuries of courtly performance behind it; it is a democratic form, with origins in communal country dance. Perhaps that’s one reason it appeals to contemporary poets from such a wide range of backgrounds and aesthetics. With repetitions crying out for dramatic emphasis and contrast, villanelles lend themselves to performance; it’s no coincidence that co-editor Marie-Elizabeth Mali has deep connections with the world of ‘‘off the page’’ poetry. But as this book manifests, many experimental poets and narrative free-verse poets have been writing villanelles as well.
In fact, the importance of the villanelle has been sneaking up on the poetry world for decades. All the while some were humoring this adamantly artificial form as a bauble or curiosity, poets from all of poetry’s corners have laid aside mid-twentieth-century prejudices against ‘‘artifice’’ and jumped in to the dance. They have brought the villanelle to critical mass, making this book a necessity. And, in the process, they have done much to birth an era of poetics where patterned and freeform poems are beginning to flourish together. The self-contained, grounded sonnet could never have achieved such an evolution for poetic form; it’s the villanelle’s spiraling momentum, its constantly evolving trajectory, that spins it off the page and into so many and new permutations.
The key to a good villanelle is to come up with two lines that are genuinely attracted to each other but also wholly independent of each other, so that their final coupling will feel both inevitable and surprising. With its roots in dance, a good villanelle is like a good romantic relationship. The two lines that structure it are dying to get together; there is a period of suspense before they do get together; and in the meantime, a changing context provides a series of new discoveries about the lines each time they appear. The form keeps the lines close but apart through six stanzas of mounting tension until they join in the last two lines of the poem. With such demands, it is no wonder that good villanelles in English are quite rare. This book demonstrates that they are also unforgettable. Villanelles
is organized into four sections. ‘‘The Villanelle Tradition’’ is arranged chronologically to give the reader a sense of the slow initial development of the form. ‘‘Contemporary Villanelles’’ uses alphabetical order to organize the great burst of recent poets of all backgrounds and aesthetics who have written superb villanelles. ‘‘Villanelles About Villanelles’’ is self-explanatory, while ‘‘Variations on the Villanelle’’ opens a door to the many possible permutations of this fascinating form.
Paul Oppenheimer writes that the sonnet, developed by a twelfth-century lawyer out of a folk song form, helped nurture the modern idea of the isolated, three-dimensional and self-sufficient self. What might it mean about the twenty-first century idea of self that we are so increasingly captivated by the villanelle? Based in communal dance rather than individual song, spiraling back repeatedly to the same refrains, often moving from obsession to acceptance through the simple movements of repetition, perhaps the villanelle teaches us something about sharing and returning, integrating, and learning to let go: good lessons for our time. You now hold in your hands the definitive collection of poems in this compelling and addictive form. Enjoy the dance! Annie Finch
Excerpted from Villanelles by edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Copyright © 2012 by Everyman's Library. Excerpted by permission of Everyman's Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.