Maggie Mendus, "In Praise of Poetic Structure"
Wait, don’t go anywhere. Just because you might not read poetry written in the classic forms doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I mean it. I was taught to write poetry in traditional forms, and I know the trend these days is free verse, sometimes very free.
Oh, I’ve been to those readings where some bearded guy with dreads stands in front of an audience, his eyes closed, swaying back and forth, the forced drama of his whispers and shouts emanating from some weird place. I try, but can’t follow his train of thought, and I don’t like being aboard trains that might derail. He’s a performance poet, for sure.
Now I have nothing against beards, dreadlocks, performance poets, or well-written free verse. But hey, I need poetry to make sense. Even content of wild emotion, angry tirades, political ravings, and decadent wanderings into love and sex have to contribute to the meaning and effect of a poem with beginnings, midpoints, and endings. I listen and keep an open mind.
But traditional forms met me along the road and we became friends. No, the French villanelle wasn’t easy at first. But reading villanelles (same form as Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas) ignited something in me that made me want to write one too.
Why am I attracted to the difficult? Believe me when I tell you that my first attempts were macaroni and cheese compared to a soufflé. But I kept at it, and the elements of its detailed rhyme scheme held my attention. After a long while I produced one, a new way of saying something that so many before me have already said. Of course that motivated me to write more, and the villanelle became my favorite form.
Practicing scales on the piano makes me more adept at playing Beethoven just as continuing to write villanelles helps me become a better poet in the classic forms. I still find sonnets challenging, but I like anaphora and terza rima. I write triolet, rondeau, pantoum, and the other formal verse, finding that structure is freeing. Poetic fences create boundaries, and in traditional verse a line is just that, an exact number of syllables, a particular rhythm, a certain rhyme.
Villanelles almost challenge me to try, a taunt with an attitude: “You can’t do it.” Oh, that kind of psychological declaration of war, that throwing down the gauntlet engages me. So what if the villanelle has 19 lines with a particular rhyme scheme? Who cares that
Line one has to repeat as lines six, twelve, and eighteen, and Line three must repeat as lines nine, fifteen, and nineteen? The French, who claim this delightful form, would think that’s important. The rhyme scheme is ABA throughout with the exception of the final quatrain, which is ABAA. Oh, and repeat lines can be modified slightly, either with punctuation to change the emphasis, or the substitution of a word or two. I find satisfaction in writing villanelles about the villanelle. Here is one of my attempts.
The Villanelle, a French Form
From stillness of the night I hear a bell
inviting me to my poetic task:
Write nineteen lines, create a villanelle.
Exquisite as a fragrance by Chanel,
the form beguiles me, makes me want to bask
in stillness so to hear the chiming bell.
Will words swirl in a glass of Muscatel
or lace a Kronenbourg within a cask
as I write nineteen lines of villanelle?
What will my embryonic poem tell,
what complex question will it pose? I ask
the stillness. Nighttime rings a chiming bell
with answers. O, how crowded the hotel
that hosts the poets. No one wears a mask.
The nineteen lines of villanelle
splash streaks of color as did Marc Chagall
whose Violinist’s blue and purple flash
blasts open night. I listen for the bell,
admire trouveres of France’s villanelle.
The shape of repeat lines in a villanelle (lines one and three) can be changed slightly, as I noted above. The purpose and challenge of this is to avoid a tedious singsong repetition, but rather to make those lines fresh while still remaining true to the form. Compare Line one (From stillness of the night I hear a bell…) with line 12 (…the stillness. Nighttime rings a chiming bell…) or Line three (Write nineteen lines. Create a villanelle,) with Line nine (…as I write nineteen lines of villanelle?). These minute variations provide interest within the structure of a form that is highly repetitive.
This quest urges me ahead and keeps me writing. In early March I published a book of 52 poems and all but a few are in traditional form.
Why not try a poem in one of the classic forms? Use Lewis Turco’s New Book of Forms as an assist. Like me, you may resist…at first. Also like me, you may become hooked.
Maggie Mendus is a retired language arts teacher. Her first book, Broken Consciousness: Reflections of an Epileptic, a collection of poetry, came out in March, 2011. She has been published in The Eclectic Muse, Romantics Quarterly, Poets’ Forum Magazine, Harp Strings, Sand Cutters, and Michigan Reading Journal. Many of her poems reflect her struggles with epilepsy. She and her husband live in an A-frame in the wooded dunes of Lake Michigan.