Villanelle à la Carte (flambée)

I sometimes find it difficult to tell,
 especially with just a single bite,
 how carefully I’ve cooked my villanelle.
 
 I like to think I bake them rather well,
 firm enough to chew, but still quite soft and light,
 but I sometimes find it difficult to tell.
 
 So I’m happy when they have that fragrant smell,
 that subtle taste, though this is rare despite
 how carefully I’ve cooked my villanelle
 
 for at my touch ingredients rebel,
 refuse to mix, to blend, to turn out right,
 and I sometimes find it difficult to tell
 
 whether or not my meal of words will gel.
 And now I just don’t care to state outright
 how carefully I’ve cooked my villanelle -
 
 I almost wish the whole thing gone to hell!
 So tell me please, in simple black and white,
 (I sometimes find it difficult to tell)
 how carefully I’ve cooked my villanelle.


This poem began life as homework for part of a creative writing course I was taking, way back in 1997 in Jyväskylä, Finland. The assignment for that particular week was to write a ‘form’ poem, and as I was the only native English speaker in the group, our tutor suggested I might like to try for something a little more adventurous than a haiku.

So I put aside the two haiku I’d already prepared and did some speedy research into various poetic forms, finally settling on the villanelle because it gave me the false impression that the level of line repetition would mean the poem would almost write itself once I’d got going.

But I couldn’t get going without a topic, and strangely, the rigid nature of the structure seemed to be stopping me find something I actually wanted to write about. Love, death, nature… none of the usual suspects seemed to want to be squeezed into the scaffolding I had waiting for them, so in the end I decided to do things the other way round – find some words that rhymed with each other, and then find some way to bring them together into a meaningful poem.

At this point I did come up with an idea of sorts. The structure of the villanelle kind of reminded me of a recipe, with its list of ingredients, followed by the mixing and cooking instructions, and I wondered if I could write a villanelle about writing (or baking) a villanelle.

So with that in mind, I moved onto the two groups of rhyming words. The word villanelle was an obvious starting point, as that was going to be the subject of the poem. Well, tell, smell, fell… there was plenty of scope there. And for the second group? Cook was a strong possibility, obviously, (look, hook, took, book), but didn’t give me as many options as bake (take, make, cake, fake, awake, forsake). Eat was also a contender. In the end, I made three separate lists but decided to keep villanelle as the primary – and more numerous – rhyme.

In a villanelle, lines 1 and 3 are the most important. Not only do they return at the end of each tercet (three-line stanza), but they finish off the entire poem by coming together as the closing lines of the final quatrain (four line stanza). So they must be able to stand alone, but also run together. Obviously this is the best place to start building. Oh, and one more thing. Although it’s not a hard and fast rule, these days most villanelles are also written in a pentameter.

After several false starts, I finally came up with this:

I always find it difficult to tell
How carefully I've cooked my villanelle.

Given the idea behind the poem, this felt like it would be a good way to finish. Also, there was scope to add a line in between for the opening tercet. But having already used the word cook I couldn’t use that rhyme for the middle line, and I couldn’t find a good line that ended in bake either. The obvious thing, therefore, was to write the line I needed and see what rhyme scheme it gave me.

After sampling that very first bite

This was my first attempt. It felt a bit clunky, but the bite rhyme scheme gave me plenty to work with so I ran with it.

At this point, I had nine of my 19 lines completed, as well as two lists of possibilities for words to finish the other lines. The rest wasn’t exactly easy, but with the baking/ingredients theme as a guide I was able to create the lines I needed to build up the five tercets.

At this point I didn’t worry too much about the meter. What I needed was a narrative that made sense and that developed over the course of the 19 lines. The repeated lines are there to give the poem a structure, but it still has to be a poem and not simply a series of unconnected lines. So I found the story I wanted to tell and set about putting a bit of meat on the bones.

I always find it difficult to tell,
after sampling that very first bite,
how carefully I've cooked my villanelle.

I think I bake it well,
soft and light,
I always find it difficult to tell.

Sometimes there's an unpleasant smell
or a bad taste, despite
how carefully I've cooked my villanelle.

Because ingredients rebel,
refuse to turn out right,
I always find it difficult to tell

if my meal of words will gel
and I cannot state outright
how carefully I've cooked my villanelle

because the whole thing's gone to hell.
So tell me, in black and white -
I always find it difficult to tell -
how carefully I've cooked my villanelle.

I don’t usually keep early drafts of my work, but in this case I was required to submit a portfolio at the end of the course that contained a whole load of information about the creative process, as well as early versions of the poems. Which is why I thought this would make a good first Poem of the Week. Anyway, as you can see, at this stage I have a fairly solid idea of what I want the final poem to say and all I need to do is fill in the lines that are too short, sort out the meter and give the whole thing a final polish.

Dealing with the meter was actually quite easy here. The combination of the rigid structure and the slightly comic tone meant I could produce lines that were a lot more formal-sounding than I would generally use when writing in my own ‘voice’. So, for example, line 5 became,

Firm enough to chew, yet still quite soft and light,

and line 14,

And now I do not care to state outright

but it did, at least, give the whole poem a unified tone. I didn’t quite manage to stick to the meter all the way through, needing to add the odd word here and there in order to make the thing flow, and I even altered one of the repeated lines twice with the addition of a but and an and at the start of the line. In my defence, this is generally agreed to be acceptable when writing villanelles. Also, I was working to a deadline.

And so the poem was finished, submitted, critiqued and generally approved of. It even made it to the anthology of work produced at the end of the course. Several years later, it made a second appearance, in a self-published collection I produced for no real reason except that I had a lot of unpublished work and wanted to give some copies away to people.

And then last year I dug it out of retirement when I needed some old material to puff out a collection I was submitting for a competition. And because I hadn’t done anything with it for a while, I decided to give it one more edit, perhaps to bring it in line with my more recent work.

There were a couple of major changes. The main one was that I changed the first (and repeated) line from

I always find it difficult to tell,

to

I sometimes find it difficult to tell,

Honestly, I’m not sure why, except that sometimes is a less absolute word and it seemed to fit better in context. The other big change was to make the subject of the poem plural rather than singular. And this one I’m really not convinced by. In some ways it makes more sense, but somehow it just doesn’t read as well. Not to me, anyway. Still, there’s nothing to say this has to be the final version either. Apart from that, there were one or two other word changes, mostly just to make the thing sound a little less old-fashioned and clunky. Also, I abandoned the automatic use of capital letters at the start of each line (which really seems old-fashioned and clunky) and went for start of sentence only.

As a final note I’ll just say that I did quite enjoy the challenge of writing a villanelle. So much so, in fact, that I wrote another one recently and maybe I’ll share that one with you at some point further down the line. In some ways it feels more like solving a puzzle than writing a poem, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’ve still never managed a sestina though.