0 Whenever we think of what fulfills itself
By making use of us, we are somewhat uneasy.
A form is accomplished, exists, though before it was not,
And we have nothing more to do with it. Others, generations,
Will choose what they want, accepting or destroying it.
And instead of us, real, they will need just names.
–Czeslaw Milosz, from “At Yale”[i]
0 The first villanelle I ever read knowing that it was a villanelle was Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” I read it in the fall of 1998, while in graduate school at an American university at the tail end of the twentieth century, serving as a teaching assistant in a 300-student class on twentieth-century literature in English for English majors: Elizabeth Bishop served a week’s sentence on the syllabus. Until that time, I had not heard of the villanelle–or if by some chance I had, it would only have been a passing mention (immediately forgotten) in connection with Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” or Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” no doubt. Even though I had always been fond of both those poems–and remembered studying the Roethke at some length in a class during my undergraduate work–I had certainly never before learned that (as these lecturers explained to these undergraduates) the villanelle was an archaic French form whose rules were strict: nineteen lines, five tercets, one quatrain, two rhymes, and two rhyming refrains alternating at fixed intervals.
0 Struck by Bishop’s poem, I looked up the villanelle in a poetry handbook–Stephen Adams’s Poetic Designs: An Introduction to Meters, Verse Forms, and Figures of Speech (1997). I happened to have this handbook on hand because it had been assigned as one of the chief texts in Studies in Poetry, a class I was to teach for the first time in the following semester. I was at that time specializing in the Victorian novel, but I had been tapped to teach Studies in Poetry chiefly on the strength of having written a few poems, which made me better qualified to teach the class than the other prose specialists bursting the seams of the department. Nevertheless, I was of course anxious to increase my authority in this relatively unexplored field before having to pose as an expert in it, and the villanelle sounded like something a bit tricky that I’d need to brush up on. That certainly served as extra incentive to look it up, even apart from the appeal “One Art” had for me.
0 also features a double refrain, this time on the same rhyme: A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A”. The meter can be iambic trimeter, tetrameter, or pentameter (or, I suppose, any meter a poet can sustain). Like the triolet, this form, which was associated with pastoral in French Renaissance poetry, was also imported for light verse by minor figures like Austin Dobson. When James Joyce in his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wanted to demonstrate his hero’s “arrival” as an artist, he had him produce a villanelle [...]. (93)
0 Adams goes on to quote Stephen Dedalus’s villanelle in its entirety, and then mentions several other “fine examples of villanelle in the twentieth century,” including “One Art,” “The Waking,” and “Do not go gentle into that good night” (quoting the concluding couplet of the latter). The paragraphs on the villanelle conclude with the remark that “A more recent example, Molly Peacock’s ‘Little Miracle,’ finds formal latitude by contrasting three-beat refrain lines against metrically variable free lines, and by other licenses with the paradigm”; “Little Miracle” is then reproduced in full (94-5). And if documentary evidence should be for some reason needed to support my own claim not to have been conscious of the villanelle before 1998, I can point to my marginal note in Adams beside the quoted concluding couplet of “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The note exclaims, “Oh, that’s a villanelle!”
0 I tell this tale of my own ignorance and enlightenment (and breathless marginalia) in the belief that it is essentially representative of a larger history of ignorance and enlightenment regarding the villanelle in the American academy. It is of course not possible to date the general villanelle illumination as precisely as my own individual villanelle illumination, but the one may be said to have taken place only about ten or a dozen years before the other–in the late nineteen-eighties. Most of those involved with contemporary American poetry are aware that there has been a recent surge of interest in the villanelle. This, very likely, is largely due (like my own surge of interest) to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Bishop’s poem was first published in the New Yorker in 1976 and also appeared that same year in her influential collection Geography III. Given a few years to germinate, it became a popular anthology piece, appearing in Contemporary American Poetry in both 1985 and 1996, in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry in both 1988 and 2003, and the Anthology of Modern American Poetry in 2000.
0 But the mild success of the villanelle in the poetic establishment is also, no doubt, due to the stirrings of New Formalism. New Formalism (later called by some Expansive Poetry or New Expansive Poetry) began in the mid-nineteen-eighties with a series of combative articles in Salmagundi and Critical Inquiry, with Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986), and with Philip Dacey and David Jauss’s anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (1986). Such New Formalist works most often tended to call not only for a return to formal versification, but a return to a more popular kind of poetry, one that would be read by a general, literate audience. Debate on New Formalism has continued since, and other New Formalist anthologies and works of critical discussion have appeared in the last fifteen years or so, consolidating the movement.[ii]