Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about Villanelles and “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop


For today’s Poetically Speaking post I’m taking over to talk about my love for villanelles and particularly “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop.

I’ve been writing poetry since I was fourteen. I knew poetry could be free verse thanks to poems like “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost. I knew poetry didn’t have to rhyme thanks to poems like “Lines for the Fortune Cookies” by Frank O’Hara. But I also knew that rhyming could be cool after I read “Resume” by Dorothy Parker and “Annabelle Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe. I even knew that capital letters weren’t always required because of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. And, of course, I knew that poems could tell stories like “The Making of Dragons” by Jane Yolen. (Related: Ask me about the lengthy free verse story I wrote about fairies when I was a teenager!)

What I didn’t realize until I got to college and started taking courses for my creative writing concentration (English major, obviously) is that poems could also take different forms. I knew a bit about rhyme scheme and line structure but things like tritinas, sonnets and haiku were still very foreign concepts.

One of my favorite forms to write and to read is the villanelle. Villanelles are a very structured form where lines alternate and certain refrains repeat after each stanza. Writing a villanelle is part creative endeavor and part construction. Although villanelles have no set meter or rhyme scheme they are pretty easy to recognize because they always have a specific lilt to them.

One of the most well-known villanelles is “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The fascinating thing about a villanelle is that the framework for the poem is immediately visible. You don’t need to track meter or rhyme–it’s just a matter of following lines. When I want to sit down and write a villanelle I don’t need to look at a structure cheat sheet because I can just look up a poem instead.

Villanelles also bring more attention to individual lines thanks to the repetition. One of my favorite things about this form is that you can bend the meaning behind lines (or refrains in the case of the those repeating final phrases in some stanzas) and subtly shift the entire concept of the poem.

This form speaks to me on a very basic level. It was a structure I was trying to create in my own work before I even knew it had a name. In college I took an advanced poetry writing course where we worked with different forms and poems throughout the semester. I submitted an older poem, one I had written in high school. It was a poem I had been tweaking and re-reading for a long time by that point without making any significant chances. Something was missing but I didn’t know what.

Then my professor returned the poem with feedback and he asked me if maybe the poem was meant to be a villanelle. After researching the form I realized that of course it was. I pared down the lines in my original poem and reworked it within the villanelle framework. Like Bishop in “One Art” I experimented with breaking the strict repetition in the final line. I changed a few words here and there until a final version started to take shape.

And finally (finally!) after that last round of revisions I had a poem that really was finished and saying exactly what I wanted it to say exactly how I wanted to say it. In shaping lines and refrains into a very specific structure, I was also able to unearth an even deeper meaning within my poem. That is the beauty of the villanelle.

Talk to me about your favorite poems or poetic forms in the comments and be sure to check back every day this April for more poetry-related posts and guest posts.