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The Effect of New Formalism

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Evidence supports the contention that the villanelle seeped into the mainstream of poetry after the advent of New Formalism; editions of major anthologies register a slight but certain increase in the importance of the villanelle in the late nineteen-eighties. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry of 1973 includes four villanelles, while the 1988 edition increases that number to nine; the 1978 edition of the Penguin Book of English Verse includes one villanelle, while the New Penguin Book of English Verse of 2000 includes four; the 1985 edition of Houghton-Mifflin’s Contemporary American Poetry includes three villanelles, while the 1996 edition includes five. 1 The four editions of the Norton Anthology of Poetry show a small but steady increase in the number of villanelles, with one in the 1970 edition, two in the 1975 edition, three in the 1983 edition, and five in the 1996 edition. Even the ten years between the publication of two anthologies “celebrating the anniversary of the American Academy of Poets” made a difference, since the 1996 Sixty Years of American Poetry includes Carolyn Kizer’s villanelle “On a Line from Valéry,” while in 1986 there had been no villanelles in Fifty Years of American Poetry.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The villanelle was, of course, also a strong presence in the anthologies specifically devoted to traditional form that began to appear in the same period. Dacey and Jauss’s Strong Measures (1986) collected a wide-ranging sample of post-World War Two poetry, representing one hundred and eighty-seven poets in an anthology that included about three hundred poems. Thirteen of these poems are villanelles–a number that compares respectably to the fifteen sestinas also included, though it does not approach the fifty-plus sonnets of various kinds. David Lehman’s Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms (1987 and 1996) includes six villanelles, as does Annie Finch’s A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (1994), while Mark Jarman and David Mason’s more exclusive Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism (1996) includes four.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But perhaps the most quickly telling evidence for the new importance of the villanelle is a comparison of the entries under that head in different editions of that first and last resort for most prosodical, historical, or biographical poetic inquiries: Princeton’s Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. The unsigned two-paragraph entry in the 1965 edition of the Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is reproduced unaltered in the 1974 edition, newly titled the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics; the entry devotes most space to describing the villanelle schematic, and then briefly cites only five poets in four centuries who have essayed the villanelle in English or in French. Even as late as 1986, the more than twenty-year-old entry remained unrevised; it was reprinted again that year in the Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, a shorter version of the Encyclopedia. In 1993, however, the entry for the villanelle in the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics was greatly expanded (to four lengthy paragraphs). The revised entry signals the new importance of the villanelle, noting that “Surprisingly, perhaps, the fortunes of the villanelle have prospered in the 20th century” and mentioning that Auden, Thomas, Fuller, Empson, Roethke, Plath, Pound, Merrill, and Hugo have all written villanelles.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The anthologized villanelles by major poets, of course, represent only the sunlit tip of the iceberg–the iceberg being the many villanelles that have appeared in little magazines, poets’ own books, and poetry workshops in the United States and the United Kingdom. I have compiled a list of villanelles indicating that over a hundred villanelles have been published in reputable literary journals and books since 1985, and I am not so simple as to suppose that this constitutes the entirety even of published villanelles from that period. 2 Unpublished villanelles and villanelles in M.F.A. theses are, I would venture, far from rare. 3

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 As for the contemporary villanelle in French, it is not to be found: not in Claude Roy and Michel Décaudin’s Anthologie De La Poésie Française Du XXe Siècle (2000); not in Alain Bosquet’s Anthologie De La Poésie Française Contemporaine: Les Trente Dernières Années (1994), not in Henri Deluy’s Poésie En France, 1983-1988: Une Anthologie Critique (1989). Negative evidence is of course too easily come by, but it does seem to be the case that the twentieth-century French villanelle is conspicuously absent–it is certainly nowhere near as thriving as it is in English. Dr. Michael Bishop of the University of Dalhousie, a respected and prolific scholar of contemporary French poetry, is at best dubious as to the whereabouts of any contemporary Francophone villanelle: “Well, I cannot say that I am aware of specific exploitation of the villanelle,” he wrote to me, “but that may mean that in certain works I just was not thinking about such possibilities” (personal e-mail, 10 April 2003). 4 No professor of Anglophone poetry would need to make such a modest reply, being undoubtedly already aware of at least a few of the scores of villanelles enumerated above.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 My own initial interest in the villanelle had two prompt consequences. The first, as I have described above, was that I looked it up, and thereby gained whatever benefits were to be gained by some slight increase of knowledge. Certainly it was the kind of knowledge that seemed as though it would help to consolidate my tentative literary authority. The second consequence–and few will probably be surprised to hear this–was that I wrote a villanelle of my own. I modeled it very consciously on “One Art,” attempting to mimic especially that poem’s additive quality, its array of seemingly neutral evidence supporting an initial proposition that then culminates in a more personal revelation. 5

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 What I would argue is that these two consequences are again representative, far more so than I would have thought at the time, when I imagined myself to be learning just enough about the villanelle to get by. I never doubted that more mature and imposing scholars knew more about the villanelle than I did. And, when I deferentially took “One Art” for my model, I never doubted that more dedicated and brilliant poets (such as Bishop herself) were bolder innovators than I, interested in transformation rather than imitation.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 It is in fact the case that the vast majority of poetry scholars know only as much about the villanelle as is to be found in handbooks such as Adams’s Poetic Designs–and the handbooks are all wrong.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Handbooks and anthologies and scholarly surveys–reference texts of any kind–that mention the villanelle almost unanimously assert or strongly imply that the villanelle has nineteen lines and an alternating refrain on the scheme A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A”, and that this scheme was fixed centuries ago in France through then-common practice, though it is now a rarity. Here is a sobering truth: only a single poet of the Renaissance wrote a villanelle by that definition, and he wrote only one. Jean Passerat’s “Villanelle,” also called “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle” (probably written in 1574), has come to represent a nonexistent tradition of which it is the sole example.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The villanelle’s origin is in sixteenth-century France: that is technically accurate, since Passerat’s poem is organized according to the scheme commonly cited as the defining characteristic of the villanelle. But recent scholarship has conclusively shown that it was at that time a nonce form, and it remained so for many generations. There is simply no significant villanelle tradition in French. The villanelle form has belonged almost entirely to English, and its history in that language dates back only to the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the villanelle has never been so common in any time as it is now. The villanelle was rare even among the British versifiers of more than a century ago who fostered its “revival,” and it was never attempted by any major poet of that age.


11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Notes:

  1. 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0
  2. See Appendix I for a table showing the anthologies I have examined and the villanelles they include.
  3. See Appendix II for a list of villanelles published since 1845.
  4. And, sadly, there is at least one press of decidedly questionable reputation for which the villanelle seems to be an absolute gold mine. Subsidiaries of The Forward Press, of Peterborough, England–a modern vanity press–have published no fewer than three collections containing only villanelles: Andrew Head, ed., Villanelle Vogue (Peterborough: Poetry Now, 1998); Heather Killingray, ed., The Ultimate Villanelle Collection (Peterborough: Poetry Now, 1998); and Kelly Deacon, ed., The Classic Collection of Villanelle (Peterborough: Anchor, 2000).
  5. Dr. Bishop is the editor of Women’s Poetry in France, 1965-1995: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam and NY: Rodopi, 1997)–a work that contains many marvelous texts and translations of French poems, and no villanelles. He is also co-editor, with Christopher Elson, of Contemporary French Poetics (Amsterdam and NY: Rodopi, 2002), and the author or editor of numerous other scholarly works on contemporary French poetry.
  6. 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In the interest of full disclosure, I include this piece, hitherto unpublished:

    14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The Intact

    15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Whatever has been touched remains itself,
    The brush of fingers causing just a shudder.
    Mere contact never altered something else.

    16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The blood is blood, in blushes or in welts;
    The breath, the breath, although the breather smothers;
    Whatever has been crushed remains itself.

    17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 An unborn child can kick as though its flesh
    Were free as ours, confined within its mother:
    Mere bondage never stilled a someone else.

    18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 No matter what two bodies thought was felt
    When part of one was tucked inside the other,
    Whatever has been fucked remains itself.

    19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 A few new canyons have been carved upon my self
    By you. That’s all. All landscapes shaped by lovers
    Merely shift: here is never somewhere else.

    20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 There you sit. I may touch you–kill some cells,
    Cause cataclysms–but we’ll both recover.
    Whatever has been touched remains itself:
    Mere contact never altered something else.

    21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0

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