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Victorious Villanelles
Writing Magazine

Victorious Villanelles

Posted 12 May 2015   |   1904 views   |   General Interest   |   Comments (0) The Writing Magazine poets took adjudicator Alison Chisholm into some dark places as she selected the winning entries in our villanelle competition

The number of poems submitted for the villanelle competition and their general quality demonstrates how today’s writers love the challenge of set-form poetry. The centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth made villanelles the perfect choice, as his name remains synonymous with the form thanks to his brilliant piece, Do not go gentle into that good night.

It was suggested that villanelles lend themselves to certain subject matter. Poems that take the reader round in emotional circles, or deal with themes that involve coming back repeatedly to the same concern, work particularly well in the form. It is not surprising, then, that many of the entries dealt with areas of emotional turmoil. Haunting experiences, death, love and loss all figured largely, but there were also some lighter themes, such as the neglect of a pot plant, watching a sunset, and the dire confession that one poet had never visited Skegness.

One major stumbling block was difficulty with the metrical form. It isn’t enough to put ten syllables on a line and assume you are writing in iambic pentameter. The ‘heartbeat’ pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, occurring five times in the line, must underlie the writing. Although an occasional variant of a feminine ending, with its additional unstressed syllable at the end of the line, or initial trochaic substitution, where the stresses of the first foot are reversed, is perfectly acceptable, the metrical integrity of the piece is compromised if the iambic pattern is broken.

It is perfectly acceptable to write in iambic tetrameters rather than pentameters, with four iambi in the line instead of five, as long as every line of the poem is the same length. Some poets mingled the two line lengths within a piece, and so lost the insistent pattern that gives the form its hypnotic quality. There were poems that included six or even seven feet in a line, or that bore no resemblance to the iambic imperative. These were eliminated at a first reading.
Occasionally the rhyme scheme was lost, with poets failing to rhyme the first line of each stanza with the two repeated lines, or ignoring the second line rhymes. Sometimes the sense variants in the repeats took the wording so far from the original that it was scarcely recognisable. The good news is that where all the technicalities were in place, so that rhyme, rhythm, repetition and metre were accurate, not a single poem was rejected easily. Rest assured that if your piece demonstrated perfect technique, only a quirk of the selection process prevented it from being a winner. On this occasion, with this adjudicator, a rival poem’s content had greater appeal. That may not sound like a reason for celebration, but it is. An entry that just misses a competition award should be easy to place in a literary magazine. 

The first prize goes to Pamela Trudie Hodge of Plymouth, Devon for Crushed Thyme and Tormentil, a poem whose dark conclusion is fi rst intimated as the slightest hint and becomes more insistent until it is inevitable.

From its intriguing title – enigmatic until the last stanza – to the final couplet where tiny changes in two words of the penultimate line turn a potentially delicate experience to sheer horror, this poem is elegantly worded, fluent, and reads and rhymes with naturalness and apparent spontaneity. As writers know, the most spontaneous-sounding language is usually the result of meticulous crafting, so we can appreciate how much care and attention have gone into the selection of vocabulary and use of language.

This poem demonstrates how powerful the metre can be when it is applied flawlessly. The beat of the iambic feet draws the reader on, with an urgency that is augmented by the sound effect of the words. At the start of the last stanza, the prevalence of staccato t and d consonants changes the mood, preparing the reader for the violence implicit at the end of the poem. The climax comes where the repeated liquid sound in light is replaced by that plosive t to form tight.

To judge the eff ectiveness of this device, speak the fi rst lines of the last three stanzas aloud. The sustained consonant sounds in and she had come, his charming neophyte and the sibilance, liquid consonants and long vowel sounds of but still she feels no need for hasty flight produce an almost languorous effect. Now listen to the difference in he takes no notice of her sudden fright, and you will see how significant the selection of sounds has been.

The gothic feel of the poem, with its secluded setting and seduction of an innocent, could have been overdone and turned the story into melodrama; but the poet holds back so that the situation is never over-sentimentalised. Instead, the narrative line follows a clear route through a dramatic account told with balance and controlled tempo.
Crushed Thyme and Tormentil is a poem you approach with a smile and leave with a shudder. The tingle-down-the-spine effect is also present from the start of the second prizewinner, Shadows, by Mary Halliwell of Rhos-on-Sea, North Wales, but here there is a measure of reassurance, a closure that ends the poem.

The content examines every parent’s worst nightmare – the phenomenon of the missing child. We are never told exactly why the child is missing. One possible reading is that the pregnancy was terminated, but equally the baby could have been abandoned or given for adoption, the child abducted, or even lost in death. It is up to the reader to supply the explanation that works. The reader, too, can decide whose child is missing. Although the texture of the poem implies the mother, it could be the father who is narrating.

These questions don’t detract from the poem in any way. Rather, they add to the piece’s intensity, because supplying the appropriate answers allows the reader to identify more strongly with the message.

This is a perfect marriage of form and content. The obsessive nature of the parent’s dream and constant seeking for resolution play around on a loop – ideal material to communicate in a villanelle.

Here, too, the precise iambic pentameter adds its music to the message. The poet has used just one pleasing variant, with the substituted trochee in the first foot of stanza five, and returns to the iambic pattern in the next foot.

A particularly successful aspect of this poem is the mingling of ordinary, everyday phrases with more esoteric material. We have shadows where my dreams abound but also learn that the narrator’s pain has gone to ground. The simple It’s over now abuts time cannot be re-wound. The poem’s register is true to life, but has the power to surprise.

Villanelles are not easy to write, but when they work they are tremendously satisfying. If you are not already a practitioner of the form, do try it. 

Crushed Thyme and Tormentil
He leads her by the hand, his touch so light,
as creatures in the ancient wood grow still.
The daylight fades and shadows ghost the night.

Though, on his lips, his smile is soft, how bright
his eyes are dancing with an inward thrill.
He leads her by the hand, his touch so light

as if her company’s a pure delight.
He’d begged her meet him at the ruined mill
as daylight fades and shadows ghost the night

and she had come, his charming neophyte,
for in her trust there’d been no warning chill.
He leads her by the hand, his touch so light

but still she feels no need for hasty flight
until he kisses her against her will.
As daylight fades and shadows ghost the night

he takes no notice of her sudden fright
and to the bank of thyme and tormentil
he leads her by the hand, his touch now tight,
as daylight fades and shadows ghost the night.

Last night he came to me, my missing child,
Out of the shadows where my dreams abound.
He turned his face towards me and he smiled.
From that deep place where memories are filed
And half-forgotten pain has gone to ground,
Last night he came to me, my missing child.

He said he knew how sorely I’d been trialled,
And though he spoke in words that made no sound
He turned his face towards me and he smiled.

He knows the fear I felt (my mind was wild),
The guilt that has pursued me like a hound;
Last night he came to me, my missing child,

Saying I should no longer be reviled.
It’s over now: time cannot be re-wound.
He turned his face towards me and he smiled.

He came to tell me we are reconciled.
There is no sorrow where the lost is found.
Last night he came to me, my missing child;
He turned his face towards me and he smiled.

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